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Bridging the Perception Gap between Scientists and the Public

Image of a microphone in front of large crowd
What do the following stories have in common? 

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, endemic measles was  eradicated from the U.S. in the year 2000, the result of decades of vaccination efforts. But the last few years have seen a dramatic spike in the number of nationwide measles outbreaks, attributed in part to rising public fears over vaccination use.
  • The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation together receive just under $40 billion in funding annually, less than 1 percent of a federal budget dominated by transfer payment programs, health insurance spending and military expenditures. Yet medical research projects, often  misunderstood as wasteful spending, are routinely placed under the  political microscope as a prime target for cuts.
  • Precise genome editing using the CRISPR/Cas9 system offers the potential to revolutionize scientific research and medicine. The prospect of directly modifying the human genome certainly has ethical implications, which are being openly debated by scientists. But any future groundbreaking therapeutics based on genome editing face strong headwinds due to substantial public opposition.

If the answer isn’t clear to you, let me suggest the following: they highlight a significant perception gap between scientists and the public when it comes to important medical advances. Indeed, on a whole host of policy issues, the public simply sees things differently from the way scientists do.

An Obligation and an Opportunity
What is the appropriate response to this gap in perception? For those of us steeped in science and medicine, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the rich knowledge of subject matter and rigorous critical thinking skills ingrained in us by our training.

And perhaps it’s just as easy to keep our noses to the grindstone, move our own research forward and survey the public mood with a sense of detachment.

But it is our responsibility to explain to the public why our work is valuable and deserves support. We are the ones who understand the depth and complexity of modern science. We have the ability to translate that information to nonscientists. And while it may sound like a burdensome obligation, it’s really an opportunity, not only for personal growth but for securing the future of scientific progress. After all, it is the public and its elected representatives who ultimately determine the fate of funding for basic medical research.

What Can You Do?
Fortunately, there are many opportunities for scientists to engage the public and bridge the perception gap. Here are just a few ideas.

Blog your heart out. Is there a scientific issue near to your heart that doesn’t receive enough attention? If you want to add your two cents to the national conversation, start a blog. With many free platforms to choose from, getting going is easy. While your audience will start out small, with a little persistence you may find your message catching on. You can also offer articles to established blogs that have a preexisting readership. For instance, I was invited to write this post by the editors of The Doctor’s Tablet after they saw an earlier post I wrote for the ASCB Compass blog.

Edit a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia is one of the most frequented sites on the Web. It is openly editable, relying on contributors to maintain quality. Many pages on scientific topics, however, still lack sourcing or do not meet Wikipedia quality standards, which may lead to incomplete or erroneous content. Given its reputation as the “first place to go” for many laypeople seeking scientific knowledge, consider editing pages  in your area of expertise. This small, but significant, contribution can help eliminate the spread of misinformation online.

Practice communicating in a low-stakes environment. Communicating science effectively often means talking in public. If you have a shy streak or feel your public-speaking skills need honing, practice in a risk-free setting. Einstein, for instance, hosts a local Toastmasters chapter where members deliver impromptu speeches and receive constructive feedback from peers.

Poster presentations and conference talks are also good opportunities to practice, and will train you to communicate science to different target audiences. Even consider giving an elevator pitch about your research to family members and friends who aren’t scientists.

Advocate for science. If you’re comfortable in public forums, consider becoming a science advocate. Here, you’ll have the chance to communicate directly with holders of the public purse strings. Advocacy includes a range of activities, such as writing to your local representatives, starting a social media campaign or participating in a Congressional Visits Day, during which you will speak directly to members of Congress or their staffers.

Recently an Einstein Science Policy Group has been formed to promote advocacy efforts on campus. You may want to look at starting such a group at your institution. Examples across the country can be found at the website of the National Science Policy Group, and a beginner’s guide to getting started locally was recently published in Molecular Biology of the Cell.

Consider a career in communication. For graduate students and postdocs, finding a job that aligns with your interests and values is an important goal. If you’re truly passionate about communicating about science, you might consider making a career out of it. Science communication is a diverse field, encompassing journalism, educational animation and everything in between.

There are many opportunities out there for scientists to bridge the divide with the public. It is up to us to step up and lay the planks.

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