“I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries”, said Marie Curie.
If the new discoveries eventually make their way out of the lab, that is.
I’m a hard-core supporter of science communication and public engagement, and recently I’ve had to advocate for the cause to a labmate who is not quite into it. Here is a non-exhaustive list of reasons why sci-com and public engagement are an essential part of academia.
1- What we do is pointless if it doesn’t get out of the lab
You are not doing cancer research so you’re convinced no one cares about your work and it won’t change anyone’s life? (except yours. And not in a good way) Well think again! Whatever your field is, some people out there are waiting for your findings. Maybe it’s an organisation, maybe it’s a company, maybe it’s a curious soul passionate about the field but who made the right choice of not going in academia. Each new finding is a discovery that will increase Humanity’s knowledge about the world! (Yes, you are that amazing) But if you don’t share it with Humanity, it won’t increase anything except your page count in your thesis. So take it out there!
People out there are waiting for your findings!
(If you are doing cancer research, well… you already know that)
2- Beware: One-way relationships are short lived
Don’t picture yourself as this messiah bringing light and knowledge to the poor minds of the world. You have a lot to give to the general public, but you also have a lot to learn from them. A genuine two-way interaction can change the way you will think about your research priorities, or the way you think about your methods. Sometimes a conversation with someone will redefine an entire concept of your research and highlight a feature you never thought about.
Share with all, learn from all!
3- Communication is a skill
Being a good communicator is a skill that requires practice, but as you are already doing a PhD / you’ve just finished one, you are probably not keen on enrolling in a Sci Com MSc (I’d love to). I believe most people can understand most things if it is brought to them the right way. Great sci com is about 50% being a great speaker, and 50% finding the right tool, approach and method to explain a specific information to a specific audience. Both are essential, and both come with training and practice. These are absolutely valuable skills that could make the difference between you and another academic when it comes to your career.
With practice, you could be the new Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, or Oliver Sacks.
4- Academics are not men in high castles
Non-researchers often consider researchers as an odd breed of people living in their own ivory tower of knowledge, self-congratulating their own brilliant discoveries. Basically researchers are either obnoxious white men in their 40s/50s with elbow patch blazers who consider non-academics as a lesser breed, or socially-incompetent white men in their 40s/50s who have no idea what the real world is. I don’t quite know where I fit in there.
This feeling towards researchers starts early. Often, when you tell people you’re doing a PhD, they start looking at you like you just told them you’re part of cult and say “Ooooh…”.
Sci Com and public engagement bridge the gap between academia and the general public. We are normal people. Most days our research doesn’t work. We have IT problems. We are not paid as we should. The list goes on. Being close to the general public, being open about our research and what it’s like to be a researcher, these could help strengthen the support and the trust between the public and researchers.
Beyond this point, these could also show that researchers come in all shapes and sizes, genders and colours, they come from everywhere and study everything. One doesn’t have to be a 40-year-old white man to be a researcher. As a matter of fact, a curious little girl from the countryside can also become a researcher if she wants to.
Bridge the gap between academia and the public.
5- You’re hooked, where can you start?
There are so many things you can do!
Baby steps — If you work on a population or a condition, and you don’t feel like sharing yet, you can always read / listen to what people in this population / with this condition have to say. Read their blogs, their books. Listen to them, and not just to analyse the data. To get more involved you can also simply take part in events organised by this community, or do some fundraising for them.
Science festival — During my gap year (in Lyon) and my 1st year of PhD (in Edinburgh) I was part of Pint of Science, an international 3-days-long pub-based science festival. PoS teams exist world-wide, and if there’s none in your city, just get in touch with the central team to create one! There are tonnes of other festival out there, that need speakers and organisers, so just give it a go!
Blog — This blog is actually a public engagement project, if you see it as a window to the lives of international female PhD students in Edinburgh researching a niche topic, it fits right into the previous point! Whether it is a written blog, a podcast, or a vlog, there’s loads of media for you to share your research or your daily life as a researcher.
Chat — You can just remove all the barriers and chat directly to people, by holding a chat on twitter for example, or (bigger project) by inviting people in the lab! Such a project was done in my team a few years ago and it was a real success!
Movie director Luc Jacquet has been a science student too (in my former uni!). Maybe one day you’ll make movies about your research too (my life goal)!
Spread the love, spread the science!