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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When science meets freakonomics

I subscribe to a couple of podcasts, and usually use my long runs to catch up with some longer episodes. As I am a slow runner, yesterday I was able to listen to two new episodes of different podcasts, and listening to them in sequence made me think about the connection between them.

The first podcast was Science Disrupt. This particular episode I’ve listened was about building the science startups of tomorrow (very interesting one). But a peculiar thing about this podcast is that after every interview, the hosts always ask the same question to all guests: “Thinking about the science ecosystem as a whole, what else do you think in science still needs to be disrupted?” – and they always get very interesting answers! The other podcast was the second episode of the Earth 2.0 series from Freakonomics Radio. This series is supposed to answer the question “What if we could remake earth? What would you change?

As I was listening to this Freakonomics episode, my mind just wandered around replacing the word “economy” by “science“, and I was amazed how the discussion still seemed pretty pertinent (in my mind). They asked A LOT of questions along the podcast, but I’m just going to go over a few of them. I’m going to try to describe the parallel here, and hopefully it will make sense on paper as much as it did while I was running…

  • “If we had the chance to totally reboot our economic system, what would that new system look like?. That seems like an unanswerable question – both economic and science-wise – and why we bother to discuss this?

Abhijit BANERJEE: I think that doing things consciously with thought, asking lots of questions; not doing them because this is how we’ve always done things, this is our tradition, this is the normal in the world … Asking questions: “Why do we do these things?” “Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the actual evidence for it?” That’s key. We won’t have a blueprint for the world. But we will have a better way of building a better world.

Applying this to science, it is easy to say that a lot of things need to change in our science system, regarding the way scientists are hired, funded, evaluated. Along those lines, our publishing and peer-review system also needs some evaluation. However, can you propose a real and feasible strategy that will make our scientific system work better? Paraphrasing Paul Ryan re: health care reform, “it’s a lot easier to oppose something than to be for something.”

Still, scientists should still reflect about the system and not simply do things automatically only because it’s how things are done. Are you happy with the current system? No, so what can you do to change it? If you don’t know where to start, the article How Scientists Can Influence Policy has some interesting suggestions. Figure out what is already happening. Expand your readings. Write letters, emails. Pick up the phone!

  • “What should be done about income inequality?”

KANTER: To make things work well, inequality doesn’t help. If you have a lot of people who feel left out of the system, well, they do get angry, and they sometimes surprise you with their feelings. But also, they often go passive. They think nothing could be done to change anything. And because of that, they’re not very motivated, and nothing does change.

Yes. Inequality doesn’t help in science either. Every time that I see a list of grants /prizes awarded, there’s a pattern there. You always see a lot of money going towards the big institutions and less or even no money awarded to small Universities. You can say that money comes to big institutions because they do better research, but how can small institutions do better research if they are underfunded?

I believe some researchers may become angry when thinking about the current funding climate, but most of them fall into the later category: go passive. As a salesperson that sells expensive laboratory equipment, I talk to many professors on a daily basis. Many times, when I suggest that they could apply for a equipment grant, or group with other researchers to get a multi-user equipment, they just sound so… unmotivated. Almost like “why bother to write a grant for that, if I know that it will be rejected?”.

I know government funding for research has never been that low, but there are alternatives. Ryan Bethencourt (Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio) suggested on the ScienceDisrupt podcast that researchers should start looking at partnerships with the private sector – partner with biotech companies to raise additional money and bring your research forward.

  • “Why North America has been more successful economically than South America?”

Tyler COWEN: Whereas, say, the Spanish colonies were more likely based on the idea of extracting wealth from other people, or taking a lot of the resources out of the ground and not investing as much in human capital.

Why some research groups are more successful than others? Is because of the institution that they are located? Or it’s because they research a topic that’s more appealing to the grant funding agencies? Also, this question made me think about all the team supporting a research group. Graduate students, postdocs, technicians. When a PI is training a GS or a PD, does it make a difference if they are just interested in their skilled labor, or if they are really training them to be better scientists? I truly believe so.

As much as a lab PI is supposed to be the leader, the mentor of its group, a successful lab still needs to be a group. And it’s the PI’s job to make this group cohesive and motivated to science! It is important to take your time and teach your group what takes to be a successful scientist. Also, keep in mind that not all GS (or even PD) will necessarily go towards an academic position. Knowing your group, understanding the goals and limitations of each one of its members can really make a difference!

  • “If you want to think about building the perfect economic system, there are so so so many elements to consider. Money, for instance. What is the optimal form of money?”

SURI: The biggest two findings are that mobile money improves financial resilience, which is the ability to deal with bad events. Basically, we find that it has an effect on poverty; it’s going to reduce poverty. (…) You’re saving more because you have the ability to save in your phone, and so people are able to do these things.

What is the currency of academia? Publications and grants. Not only number of publications, but also the impact factor of the journals on which they are published. Publications are part of the measurements of a researcher’s success, determining if they are going to get hired, funded, and be successful in their careers. The podcast suggested that the use of mobile money could decrease poverty, and I wonder if academia could somewhat change its currency to be more fair to all researchers.

  • Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

CAPLAN: Saying, “Let’s give everybody free money no matter what. People perfectly able-bodied. People perfectly able to take care of themselves.” That seems crazy at the outset. But more importantly, if you do a small amount of math and realize how much would it cost, the cost is enormous. Right now, the welfare state — we’re able to keep the cost down because we don’t give money to everybody.

So, with all bias and problems regarding grant funding, what about if we just gave some funding to all researchers to do their research? I certainly don’t believe this would be a good idea, as there are so many researchers from different fields, all requiring different amounts of money to perform their research. Along those lines, a new grant funding system was proposed by Johan Bollen at Indiana University where scientists would just give each other money: “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Unfortunately, I don’t believe this would work either, as the bias (and pressure) towards funding your own friends would be enormous, and also making things even harder for junior researchers.

I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. But it was nice to reflect on those issues, economy and science-wise. One of the conclusions of the Freakonomics podcast was that it’s hard to build a good economic infrastructure without a good political infrastructure. I do truly believe we have a lot to learn from economics!

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 Reproducibility and Open Access

At first I was planning to write two separate posts on each one of those issues. Reproducibility and Open Access were extensively discussed during the #AAASmtg, and even if I wanted it would be impossible to share all with you. Also, they were discussed in totally separated sessions, and they apparently are two totally separate issues, I can’t help to see them as two big problems mainly caused by our system.

Yes, reproducibility is a real problem. According to a Nature’s survey, more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.There has been a scary big number of published articles being retracted due to reproducibility problems. Not only experiments can give us different results when repeated, but sometimes the same data can be interpreted differently among researchers. The attempt to replicate key cancer studies with the “Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology” is bringing more questions than answers.

Yes, science should be open and accessible to all. Most scientific research is funded by federal grants, which is supported largely by our taxes. It is logically expected to be open to the public that is actually paying for it. Open Access brings more transparency to research and can also stimulate curiosity and interest – bringing more attention to science! Openness not only regarding published articles, but also Open Data – where other researchers can access, analyze, and collaborate.

But both reproducibility and open access fall under the problem of how our system works.

Scientists are mainly judged by the number of publications, and the impact factor of the journals where they publish. One of the main requirements for publication of a scientific article is NOVELTY. Neither replication nor negative studies are encouraged to be published. Even though I totally agree when Jessica Polka said at the #AAASmtg that “We need a culture where people read papers and not the name of the journal”, unfortunately both funding and hiring committees still care about journal titles and metrics when judging scientist’s achievements.

The “publish or perish” culture not only incentive publishing unreliable data, but also decreases the quality of science. Tight funding and the increasing competition may encourage falsehood and misconduct in academia. Probably not deliberately, but who has time (and money) to repeat that experiment with those two outliers? There is a lot of cherry-picking and p-hacking that can be easily performed by the analyzer. If you don’t believe me, you should try Nate Silver’s example of how to Hack Your Way To Scientific Glory.

Landing an academic job, getting funding, and publishing science is tough business! As professor Sydney Brenner points out in this interview:

Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently?  And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal (The Bible).

 

Who’s to blame? Open Access defenders blame publishers. Publishers blame academics. Academics blame funding agencies. Potential solutions? Besides a cultural change in the system, where science would be more important than metrics, reproducibility and negative results should be supported and encouraged. Some publishers are contributing to this, as Nature published a manifesto for reproducible science and Elsevier creating developing a new article type especially for replication studies.  A new kind of paper combining the flexibility of basic research with the rigour of clinical trials was recently proposed by some researchers. Data sharing and the recent incentive to use preprints in biological science can also help with this, as data and research drafts are open to other researchers feedback, and possible problems with replications.

The scientific world is paying more attention to quality of research, replication, data analysis. Change seems to be coming. Hopefully funders, publishers, and hiring committees will change along as well.

PS: This is my fourth post within the series of “My first #AAASmtg”. Previous posts include expectationspersonal impressions, and public engagement.

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

My first #AAASmtg: post-meeting personal impressions

Someone on Twitter described the AAASmtg to me as “overwhelming”. I’ve thought nothing could be more overwhelming than attending to the Society for Neuroscience meeting and dealing with 30k people! Well, it turns it can. It’s not the size of the conference or the amount of people. There is just SO. MUCH. GOING. ON.

There are so many talks happening at the same time, (and such interesting talks) that is tough to choose which one to attend. But once you finally decide which session you’re going, the talks were so rich that really sparks your interest. Besides, loved how the speakers (usually 2-3) would give their take on the subject in about 20 minutes, leaving a really long time for questions and open discussion.

I am still thinking. I am still digesting. I am still choosing which topics I want to cover here on my blog. Planning to write a blog series covering some of the topics discussed and my opinion about them. If you want to have a taste of all sessions I’ve attended, you can check the Storify I’ve created with my tweets and RT from the conference. But for now I am going to talk about my personal experience during the meeting, which was quite remarkable!

One of the first things I realized when I’ve got to the meeting was that your badge has your name and supposedly your institution’s name immediately under it. I left mine blank when I registered, simply because I’m not linked to any academic institution any more, and the name of my company wouldn’t matter less in this context. But of course I added my Twitter handle to my badge (keep wondering why the conference doesn’t add it already?!?)

After a couple of interactions, I wished my real name wasn’t on my badge. As I heard on a TED podcast today, “When we go online, we present a digital version of ourselves”. It turns that although I tend to be very truthful and honest on Twitter, my IRL and my Twitter persona live totally different lives, with totally different goals. The persona that attended to #AAASmtg was not the neuroscientist that turned into a sales person, but my digital version, the passionate scientist that loves to advocate and discuss Science. It felt liberating to introduce myself mainly by my Twitter handle, one because it is so much easier for people to say it than my real name, and also because I’ve heard many times “oh, I follow you on Twitter!” 🙂

But I needed a label. A short description for when I didn’t have enough time to tell my whole story. So I started telling people that I was a “SciComm enthusiastic”. It worked, and I like the sound of it. Not sure if it’s the right one for me, but it was the best I could find (I should have thought about this ahead of time…). I believe my Twitter voice, our DiversityJC, and our RecoveringAcademic podcast are all forms of SciComm. But not only! A big part of me loves to discuss and advocate for Science, in all aspects. How can we increase federal funding for research? How can we fight the publish or perish culture? How can we deal with the reproducibility crises that it’s going on?

In a way those (and many other) concerns were addressed during the #AAASmtg. But I feel that now is the time to think and digest all discussions and put them into action! Unfortunately most of them don’t depend only on ourselves. But acknowledging and discussing the problems and concerns is a big step into figuring out how to address them. Until I find a way where I can actively work towards this, I’ll use my voice. My words. My passion. Let’s keep trying to find where and how I can keep serving for the common good… of SCIENCE!