We need to talk


Probably most of you heard this dreadful phrase, maybe from your partner, your boss or your parents. And I assume that most of you do not have the most positive associations with it. Neither do I. Today, I want to change this: the topic of today’s article shall be the communication between scientists and the public and why it is so important that we talk to each other.

Me at Science goes PUBlic, with one of my favourite toys. Credit: MARUM – Zentrum für Marine Umweltwissenschaften, Universität Bremen

Admittedly, we scientists do stuff which you may never have heard of. Additionally, we have our own lingo. Since we use it every day, it is hard to switch off the science mode when we leave our offices. If you ask me what I do, I might answer something like :

‘Oh you know, it’s not complicated and quite relevant for you. It’s just the investigation of the complementary wavelength-dependent approaches to retrieve sea ice concentration from space-borne sensors and how to best exploit their mutual benefits. Piece of cake, really.’

You will probably fall asleep before I finished my sentence, and deservedly so. But how does this come?

We scientists are taught from the cradle onward that our credibility is our highest good. We are educated to weigh every tiny word. So, when we talk to the public, we want to make absolutely sure that you understand 100 % of what we are doing. And since we can only do this using our own lingo, we refrain from using common terms. This is certainly not true for all scientists, but I think that this is the core reason why there is this stereotype of scientists doing stuff which no one understands. Even worse, people do not even know why they should care to understand it. It is our job as scientists to change this.

Bremen and Bremerhaven scientists at the March for Science in Bremen (April 14, 2018). Credit: V. Kirillova

After all, everyone who pays taxes pays our wages. The German Federal Ministry of Education pays more than 250 million € per year for basic research. Technically, we are your employees and you are our clients. Can you imagine a company where your client comes and says ‘Hey, can you please explain me what you’re doing with the money I pay you?’ and you answer ‘Well, I could, but you won’t understand it anyway. It’s good for you, though, trust me!’? I’m not an economist, but I guess this company would be bankrupt faster than you can say the sentence ‘We need to talk’. It may be hard, it may require us to overcome our fear of over-simplification and it may even require us to change the way we think about science. But we scientists need to learn how to break down our research in a few, commonly understandable sentences.

But we can also turn this around: Can you image paying someone and when you ask what the person does with your money, (s)he answers ‘Well, I could try and explain it, but you won’t understand it anyway. It’s good for you, though, trust me!’ and you just say ‘Fair enough, have fun!’? Well, I think I wouldn’t. Science outreach is growing and there are numerous ways to learn about what we are doing, from blogs, Twitter accounts, science journalism and so on (see a collection at the bottom).

Especially now, in times of easily spread false information, it’s important to get reliable information. That is why it is so important that we talk to each other. Let’s work on this together!

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