seascape models

Three myths you’ve probably heard about scicomm

Myth 1: Academics scientists are stuck in an ivory tower

The idea of an ivory tower is far from my experience. I trained in a lab of conservation biologists who were working with NGOs and government regularly to inform on environmental management.

When I moved to Griffith, applied funding was the dominant source of funding for my research institute. My colleagues are very successful at working with industry and government to do novel science, but also to deliver sound scientific advice to these partners.

Looking further, I see so many peers doing great scicomm, everything from education in schools, to writing policy briefs, to appearing frequently in the news media.

I have heard there ivory towers still out there. Like a university that won’t recognize a Prof’s leadership on the IPCC assessment reports (global syntheses) because the work is too ‘applied’.

All of us can of course do more and learn more to be better at scicomm. And the work it involves does need more recognition from universities. But, In my experience, the ivory tower is an outdated concept. We’ve worked hard to come down from the ivory tower.

Myth 2: Only academics will read your papers

I pretty much believed this one until recently. But then, a pre-print of our study on tiger shark declines was discovered by lawyers (without any help from us) and used in an environmental court case ((open-access version)[https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2019/01/13/395509.full.pdf])).

It does help to do engagement and promotion of the work. I’m sure the news interviews and tweeting we did about the paper helped build awareness of its existence.

And, I would never trust that people will just find and read my papers. If I think a study has important policy implications, then I will do scicomm on it. This could include writing blogs, writing for newsletters or doing a press release.

These actions require a bit of luck, for instance, a press release needs to be topical and happen during a quiet news week to get good uptake in the news media.

You could also do more active engagement, like sending the paper, a blog, or an executive summary directly to the people who might want to know about it. Or you could just ring them up and ask to meet.

Myth 3: If you are Tweeting you are doing scicomm

Let’s define scicomm using a common definition: a scientist talking about science to a non-scientist.1

So talking to other scientists (‘inreach’) is not scicomm, talking to people outside of academia is scicomm (‘outreach’).

A clever analysis looked at the followers of prominent ecologists on Twitter. It found that you had to have about 1000 followers to be doing outreach.

So if you have <1000 followers then, on average, you not doing much scicomm.

The study encourages us to build a following on twitter, so that we do eventually reach a broader audience.

Why tackle the myths?

I wanted to write about these three myths, because I still hear them pretty commonly. I hope that by recognizing them as myths, we can give ourselves and each other better recognition for the scicomm we do. And I hope recognizing these myths will help us keep scicomm training up to speed with scientists needs.

That last topic is something science communicator Tom Rayner and I will be writing about soon.

1: Science communicator Tom Rayner gave me this definition. Neither of us are sure it’s quite right, but that’s a topic for another blog.



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