Spreading the Wealth: The Importance, and Challenge, of Disseminating Science

Celine Cammarata

The relationship between scientists and the broader public is not always an easy one; many outside the field view science as somewhat unapproachable, while researchers are generally not trained to communicate their work to non-scientists and may find such activities prohibitively time consuming.  Addressing these issues in a recent manifesto aimed directly at investigators, neuroscientist and author David Eagleman gives a compelling argument as to why scientists should strive for greater public dissemination of their work.

While acknowledging the challenges of sharing research with the public, Eagleman provides a systematic series of reasons why doing so is nonetheless worthwhile and important.  Some of Eagleman’s reasons focus on obligation; much research is publicly funded, and taxpayers arguably deserve to see the work that their money has helped to produce.  Others revolve around what can be accomplished through the spread of science.  Sharing research, Eagleman notes, can motivate scientific thinking and contribute to policy debates – if important decisions regarding social and legal issues are to be made, let them be made on the basis of reason and empirical evidence rather than unsubstantiated suppositions or inclinations.  Furthermore, public dissemination of research is a boon to science itself, clarifying misconceptions about scientists, the scientific process and scientific facts.  Finally, Eagleman suggests, science is in essence about revealing and appreciating the beautiful intricacies of the world, and this is best when shared.

Eagleman presents a strong case for sharing scientific research with society at large.  The issue, then, becomes how this can be successfully accomplished, which poses a significant challenge.  Eagleman cites “stemming the flow of bad information” as one reason for the public dissemination of science, mentioning how mainstream media often misrepresent scientific facts.  But with such media representing one of the primary channels of reaching society, this misrepresentation itself becomes an obstacle to the spread of scientific findings.

Reading Eagleman’s manifesto called to mind an interesting piece from Neuron last year in which the authors examined the representation of neuroscience in mainstream media, concluding that research findings were very often inaccurately portrayed, almost to a dangerous degree.  Not infrequently, incorrect or irrelevant findings were cited to bolster a social or political stance, and research was frequently exaggerated and extrapolated to serve unsubstantiated claims.  The authors restricted their study to national daily newspapers; while it is true that more specialized media sources, such as magazines like Scientific American, tend to give reasoned, thorough descriptions of research, the reach of such outlets is biased towards those already interested in science; the average citizen will most likely instead receive information about scientific findings from more general, and less reliable scientifically reliable, sources.

Eagleman makes an strong case for why public dissemination of science is important and indeed necessary, laying the groundwork for a substantive discussion of how to achieve this successfully.  The authors of the Neuron study suggest that awareness of the contexts in which findings may be viewed and the possible ways they may be understood can allow investigators to express their work more effectively.  Platforms such as the Secret Science Club and TED allow scientists to interact more directly with the public, making dissemination of knowledge somewhat less of a game of telephone.  Hopefully scientists will continue build upon these and similar ideas in the future as they continue in the challenge of broadening the dissemination of scientific research.