Monday, 10 October 2011

Are you a scientist, or a science communicator?

Where do you draw the line between "scientists" and "science communicators"? Do we need dedicated people just to communicate science? Should scientists be trained to do this themselves? And if the "communicators" have to be trained as scientists to degree level, shouldn't they just call themselves "scientists"!?

To a certain extent all scientists communicate their work to other people, even if it's just to their funding agencies, colleagues, family and friends. However well - or badly - they do it is not the point, it still counts as the communication of scientific ideas. 

On the other hand we have the professional science communicator, who still needs to be a trained scientist to degree level, but who has carved out a career by translating complicated concepts into palatable (but not "dumbed down") ideas.

I wonder if it is confusing to members of the public to see science communicated by people who talk about the work of "scientists", but don't profess to be one themselves. [I use the term "public" with that kind of cringe that is reserved for times when I'd like to find a better word to describe "lay-people" but can't think of one.] 

Particularly for the case of school children, doesn't this just create an extra barrier between themselves and the "real" scientists? It's all very well that the communicators are generally young, gender-balanced (as a group, that is) and enthusiastic people, but do the audience walk away wondering what the "real" scientists are like? Do they still assume that they are white middle-aged men like they see in textbooks and in pictures on the classroom wall? (Newton, Einstein, Rutherford anyone?)

It's great that we now have "real" scientists who are also fantastic communicators on TV, and I think this is definitely the way it should be. But... does this make 'science communicators' redundant (except perhaps in science journalism)? How much does credibility matter? Should science museum presenters be part-time researchers? What if they are presenting something out of their 'field'? What if a scientist is presenting something that isn't their research?

I would love to believe that we simply play complimentary roles where communication experts can help science experts and vice versa. But of course, when it comes down to it the communicator has to make money from this whereas the scientist doesn't. That, if nothing else, must surely change the game.

1 comment:

  1. Lot of questions there!

    I agree a large part of the job of a scientist is communication, and you don't have to be good at all facets to be a good scientist.

    Some of the answers are, I guess, in the "horses for courses" box. I mean I personally don't think it matters at "real" scientists not talking to school kids until they are wanting to talk to one. We are all part of the same business and if someone can get across the "magic" of the science then they should be the ones that do it. (I use the word magic in a "wonder" sense).

    To suggest that only scientists and not "sci commers" can talk is a bit like (to me) saying a hospital manager can't talk about medicine because they are not a medic.

    Personally I have found talking to science comms specialists a huge asset. Whether TV producers or journalists. Everyone needs an editor, and they are skilled in spotting the side of the story that could make an impression. Certainly some of the things I have thought were the "good bits" in projects I have been involved in have been breezed over to focus on stuff I knew – but didn’t see "normal" people would be amazed.

    As for science communication specialists creating a barrier, to me it depends a bit on whether the science area is "contested". e.g. Gravity good, but some areas such as GM, climate change nano-robot-wars – it depends which side of the "fence" you sit on. But in those three areas of science I hav highlighted it is clear scientists have done enough "damage" themselves!

    What I find "interesting" is scientists who jumped the fence into sci comms and are then held up as a bit of a stereotype of what "we" are like. For example I personally have never met or worked with someone like this , but then I have only been a scientist since 1989. It bothers me that school kids may think "we" are like this.