How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

It is no news to any of us that science is currently under attack with the current administration – with EPA dismantling, proposed funding cuts to the NIH, but also with erroneous views about climate change and vaccines causing autism. But more importantly, this seems to me to be a consequence of how the general public view science, overall. They tend not to trust scientists because they cannot relate to us. They don’t understand what we do, and also they don’t believe to know any scientist. The #ActualLivingScientist hashtag was a great response to this, but we still need to fix the fact that the general public don’t really understand what we do.

The scientific community as a whole does not think about the public as being an audience of what we do as scientists. When we get a grant, we should be thinking about how to explain to the public why we are doing this, to get their engagement in the science (@SenatorPhD, heard on the ScienceDisrupt podcast)

During the last #AAASmtg there was a lot of discussion about #SciComm and public engagement (you can read more about this on a previous blog post). Yes, most scientists agree that they should do science outreach,  but do we really know how to do it? Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we are talking about?

Last month I published a guest blogpost at the PLOS Neuro community discussing a very interesting paper on neuroendocrinology of female reproduction. I was very happy with the final result, but IT WAS EXTREMELY HARD TO WRITE IT! First, because it was my former area of research, and I wasn’t sure how simple I should get. But also, having read so much about this particular topic made it harder to actually make it more simple and appealing to non-experts. Writing to a general audience is not an easy task, and it requires a lot of practice and attention to the language (passive voice and jargons, anyone?)

It is important to properly communicate our results to the general public – not only to gain their trust, but also to avoid misinterpretation of results. We discussed this topic during our last #DiversityJC and how this can harm science and society in general. One of the main critics to the #OpenAccess movement is – “why should science be open to the general audience if no one is going to be able to understand the research?”. In fact, science needs to be more open, but also more accessible!

Apparently there are a couple of journals that already started including ‘plain-language summaries’ to their research articles. eLife published a nice guide explaining its summary (called e-Life digests) and the importance of doing so. But if the journal where you published your research is not among those, there are still several ways you can increase the visibility of your research, and among all those suggestions, I totally encourage you to blog your own research. It’s great practice to “explain or expand upon your research for non-specialist audiences, and to provide additional information and background that perhaps didn’t make it into the final version of a paper.”, as @protohedgehog suggests.

You may say why should I bother if there are already science journalists and communicators that are trained to do this job? The problem is that only super hot-topic research ends up being presented and discussed to the general audience. Others may also argument that no one reads science blogs anymore. I can tell you by experience that the general audience will not follow your blog, but it will sure find your blog post using google. My post about Prolactin secretion and miscarriage was published back in 2013 and since then it hasn’t had a single month without a reading.

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As Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And we all should start practicing to be able to explain it simply. To share your knowledge and to fight for science!

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Where do you want to go?

As most of you are probably aware of, lately I’ve been looking into new job directions. As a true extroverted person, I have been pretty open about it, both online and IRL. And as I’m getting more excited about it, I talk more and more about it (For those who doesn’t know me IRL, I talk… a LOT!). Now people are starting to ask me how my career change is going, and they get surprised and excited to learn about my (small) progresses. But the thing is, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that many of them are not happy with their current professional life. Or with some aspect of their lives.

As my mom used to tell me:El hombre es un animal de costumbres” (Man are creatures of habits). It is easy to get used to things. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. In a way or another, I am pretty sure everybody has been there. Also, one cannot forget the principle of least effort, that postulates that animals, people, even well-designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or “effort”. But many times the reality is, “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” (Thomas Jefferson).

When I left academia, I was pretty much pushed out of it. Our grant was not renewed and I was unemployed for 4 months. During that time, I had the opportunity to look into some of the inumerous paths that a PhD can take besides being in academia. But as the months went by and I was becoming more and more anxious about weather I was going to find a job or not, getting a job became the priority, not exactly choosing one. I was lucky, ended up finding a position that allowed me to be “academic adjacent” and that I sincerely enjoy doing it. However, after two years working on sales, there was no novelty anymore and as a people person, working remotely from home became really painful.

So here I am, again, looking into a second career change. But this time, I am taking the time to reflect, to explore, to discuss. I am far from getting where I wanna be, but now I have a much more clear vision of what I would like my future to look like. It has been taking me much longer than I’ve thought, as you can see in past posts from November, DecemberMarch… I don’t know if I will ever get where I wanna be, and I am not claiming I have all the answers. Things work differently to different people, but I’ve decided to share what has been working for me so far.

  • STOP! Acknowledge the fact that something is not right.

This may be the hardest and the most important part of the process. As I mentioned before, it is so much easier to take the path of least resistance and just “keep going”. There is no such thing as a perfect life. Of course there are little things that bother you here and there, but when those things start to become a burden, then it’s time to do something about it.

  • THINK! Where you wanna go / what you wanna be and how?

In my particular case, I knew I wanted to change my career path, but I wasn’t sure where to look, which way to look. One thing that helped me in the beginning was to create a prototype design of my life. I’ve stolen this idea from the Hidden Brain Podcast and cover it here: Before you do problem solving you have to do problem finding. I came up with the different possibilities for my career life: 1- Continue working in Biotech Sales, 2-Science Outreach, and 3- Come back to academia. And then, I’ve started digging into each one of them. As time went by, my options 1 and 3 faded away, and the more I explored option 2, the more I realized that was the way I wanted to go. I’ve read a bunch of things in the internet. I’ve made a lot of informative interviews. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how much people are willing to help you, if you ask!

  • ACT! Start working towards your goals.

A lot of times, you may need to undergo some internal changes first, in order to achieve bigger changes later on. I think of it as weight loss. Even though I’d absolutely love to lose 20 pounds overnight, I know this is unrealistic and I have to change my daily habits if I want to be in better shape. Baby steps. Changing takes time, and it can be painful. But most importantly, keep yourself on track. Be aware. Be alert. In my case, what I’ve been noticing is that I have waves of intense activity intercalated with waves of passivity. I believe this is part of the process, and it’s okay. Again, changing takes time, and it can be painful. But I truly believe that, with patience, it can be done.

Everybody feels stuck at some point. And most of the time, people don’t really know where they want to go, to begin with. People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many.

And I hope that you and me both will find one of those many destinations!

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A different kind of Spring cleaning

This past week was a tough one for me. First, because I’ve got sick – some sort of nasty cold that prostrated me for a good couple of days. But also, because I had a very important conversation to my bosses on Thursday. During the past couple of months my sales haven’t been that good. I blamed it on the academic environment, lack of funding, etc – but was told other academic territories have been doing good, despite the funding crisis. As an independent contractor, I don’t have to reach quota on my sales, but I do receive a base salary, and a certain amount of sales is expected from me!

My bosses were beyond understandable. They could have fired me. They could have put me into straight commission. But they didn’t. They told me something was wrong and they wanted to help me fix it. I told them that if I knew what was wrong, I’d have already fixed it, because of course, I want to sell more (and make more money). They told me to talk to others, and reflect about what I may have been doing wrong and how to fix it.

Being sick, I’ve spent the last couple of days stuck at home. You know when you feel your life needs cleaning and organizing ,and you start by your house? So as I was feeling better today, I did A LOT of cleaning – and trashed tons of things around my house, specially in my office. As I was doing it, I also had time to reflect about life and do some sort of spring cleaning of the inside.

One of the main things I realized is that although I’m now on the other side of the sales process, I still feel like an insider. Meaning, I still care way too much about all the professors, and I still want THEM to get the best price, the best deal. When I close a sale, I’m happy, because of my paycheck, of course, but mainly because I know how much this means to them, and how happy they will be to have a nice instrument such as the ones I sale. My sales usually are not less than 50k, and can easily go to the six figures. So, I know it’s a big step, a big commitment.

But now I’ve got to change this. I need to care more about my sales, my numbers. One part of me is ready to take the pledge, and be a better salesperson ASAP. But can I? It might be possible that I’m just not good at this, and don’t have the right personality for it. When I was hired, I remember telling my (now) boss how I knew I could not be the car dealer type of person that would push anything to my customer. I was hired mainly because of my academic roots, and ironically it seems that this is what is preventing me to succeed in this career.

That brings me to the other point. Do I want to succeed in this career? When I left academia, I didn’t really leave, but was pushed away from it. I didn’t really have time to explore all the possibilities and this sales job was a nice surprise to be honest. I never saw myself doing something like that, but maybe because of my extroverted and social personality, maybe because I’m still somewhat related to science and academia – I ended up enjoying my new job. And that’s the key: I enjoy what I do, but I don’t LOVE what I do. Not the way I used to love when I was in academia.

Since last SFN I’ve been saying I want to get a job doing Science Outreach. I attended to the AAAS meeting last month and absolutely loved every second I’ve spent there, discussing how to make better science, more accessible, more reproducible, more open. That’s where my passion is, and that’s what I should pursue. I am more than ready to move on. It’s time to stop talking and start working towards it.

My first #AAASmtg: on Public Engagement

One of the big focus of the #AAASmtg was on Science Communication and Public Engagement. This is understandable and expected, due to the actual general distrust of science and when more than 70% of the population cannot name a single actual living scientist. How can they believe and trust something (or someone) that they cannot relate to?

But who are “they”? Who’s your audience? Saying just “the general public” is not enough, it is just too broad. Yes, you should speak in a language that is accessible to non-scientists, but you should also focus on your audience. You can reach people many ways – but in the end people listen to their peers, and we must be aware of this community engagement. That’s why it is important to think about the community engagement versus individual engagements! In order to do that, it is important to engage decision-makers. This requires a long-time engagement, partnership, and building trust. There are three different types of engagement: conventional (top down), thick (slow, better results, but hard to do), and thin (fast and easy). Thick and thin do complement each other – important to work on both!

Shut up and listen. Scientists are used to communicate their research through talks, in a monologue form. But communicating science should be a dialogue! You need to be able to communicate your research to laypeople and by the end answer the question “so what?”, giving details and directions. It is not that you have to abandon all your knowledge. (“Don’t be such a scientist” @sciencequiche). Don’t give up your expertise! After people understand you, they will value your expertise and there’s an increase of trust. Trust is the key word here, and this is a two-way street that can only be achieved if you stop just talking but start to listen as well!

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Most scientists agree that they should do Science outreach, and many believe they already do so. But data from a PEW RESEARCH study show that although scientists do engage with other citizens, they are less likely to talk to reporters, use social media, or write blogs. One of the main reasons is because all those engagements TAKE TIME, and time is precious in academia! But the big problem is that most scientists don’t see public engagements as something that can improve their career. Science outreach is not motivated by the institutions, and in many cases, discouraged. That’s why it is important to build a community on your institution, where science outreach is normal and accepted.

 

Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. This is not an easy task, as our research usually is so specialized and requires a lot of background knowledge to be fully explained and understood. Currently, science journalism is the major mean through which the public acknowledges scientific discoveries. Scientists usually do not like that, as there is an eternal battle between objectivity vs subjectivity (and there is a lot more about this that I won’t cover in this blog post, but let’s say that this relationship… is complicated!). But not all scientists work with research that will make the NYTimes. Those are only a few percentage of us, and it is important to share not only the big eureka moments, but the small bricks of basic science that eventually will build the wall of knowledge!

Overall, scientists should do more public engagement. But besides being aware of this and communicating your science with people around you, one should learn how to communicate it. Also, public engagement is not something a scientist do just because you “should” do it. We are passionate about our science, our research – it can be fun to pass this to the public. And the more you interact, the more you learn to communicate your science in a broader (and more reachable) language.

PS: This is the third post of my series “My first #AAASmtg”. Here are the links to previous posts about expectations and personal impressions.
PS 2: Further reading: “Science Communication to the General Public: Why We Need to Teach Undergraduate and Graduate Students this Skill as Part of Their Formal Scientific Training