The best thing for science communication might not (always) be science communication
It’s time for a bit of a provocative thought.
But first, a thought experiment: Let’s say there exists some crucial matter to social or environmental well-being in America that nearly all life scientists are on board with. Every one of them. From some 2013-2016 NSF data noting the “science and engineering” work force as about 6.3 million strong, this leaves our passionate life scientists army at about 5.5% of that, or roughly ~350,000 folks. Now let’s say all of them, and I mean all of them, care about this matter so deeply that they all endeavor in some form of science outreach each year. With 100% from participation from that field, it would still take the collective effort of all life scientists 10 years, each connecting with 100 people each year with 100% effectiveness, to reach the ~350 million Americans that need to hear their message by that time.
Now, of course we know the above is absurd for many reasons. Key science communication topics certainly don’t need reach the sum total of the American population to, say, help preserve a species or bring attention to an important health concern. And scientists need not be alone in their efforts. But I hope the point is still clear — Even if we could get every single scientist in a field on-board with science communication and outreach, and train them to do it with amazing efficacy, it would still take an immense amount of time, effort, and money to bring any science outreach topic (and there are so many!) to the bulk of the public.
Back to the provocative thought then: The “best” thing for science communication might not necessarily be more of it.
Granted, I’m all for more science communication, and I think it’s important for many reasons. For one, never underestimate the value of local impact and what that can have on your community. For another, any help that is done to raise the bottom-line of scientific literacy is significant, meaningful, and needed. Also important — it’s fun.
But if you’re in the game of science outreach for an intentional and significant social change, if efficiency in this matters, even for much smaller target sizes than the “bulk” of the public, then the best way to bring about that change might have very well have little to do with science communication at all.
Personally, I think this is another reason to always ask what you’re in it for. And it really is different for everyone. But I wanted to at least stick in a reminder of that there’s a wide world out there of other ways to bring the impact. To take a look at a few examples…
Would this topic be better covered by educational reform? What if the overall scientific literacy of students was increased– would this matter follow naturally? Are their resources that can be provided to the educational system to help? Is it a matter of teacher training or administrative awareness? Are there existing organizations working with similar topics in education that you can join efforts with?
Public access & accessibility
Does the public even have access to the science in question? And along with their ability to access it, is it truly “accessible” in that it’s understandable by the audience? Does the public have access to the resources they need to follow through on any call to action? How hard is it to find your work? Are there barriers that prevent access to either the science itself or the intended response by others?
Legislation and policy
Would the topic be better addressed by the government? Can you meaningfully encourage action on this topic, or does this need support from institutional powers? Would it be more beneficial to convince key figures on the matter rather than the public at large? Are there vested interests that should be dealt with first? Is it even perhaps a matter of more lobbying needed?
Relationship with public groups
Maybe the strategy is not more or better communication, but the support of specific groups? Have you considered if the links with or stances within key social groups need support first (i.e. religion, political groups, special interests)?
Economic and social reform
Perhaps gravitation toward your goal would occur naturally if various negative economic or social well-being factors were not in the way? Does the intended audience have the time (from work and family care) and well-being (socially and economically) to address your goal? Would raising the overall well-being of the public have a stronger impact than targeting your goal directly?
There are most certainly other and better examples out there, but these are worth considering. Unfortunately, they are also often more complicated, nuanced, tedious, and can be farther by field from what interests scientists in their work and outreach in the first place.
But they may be what’s more effectively and conceivably what’s really needed. Arguably, for instance, we are increasingly finding ourselves in a world where we might be better served by some scientists rolling up their lab coat sleeves and stepping into the world of politics. So if you’re out there with a knack for these kinds of matters, give it a thought.
We may very well need you the most.