By Michael Burel
For years, I have preached the importance of better science communication. I’m not talking about how scientists talk to other scientists. We’re already good at that. We’re trained to discuss what we do with such specificity and precision that only 10 other people on the planet could possibly understand our research. Kudos, us.
I’m talking about communicating science with general audiences, like your long-distance aunt you only see on Thanksgiving. Or your neighbor who’s wondering about potential vaccine dangers. Or even your local representative who needs opinions on funding research in your field. Scientists truly struggle in these arenas, and we must do better.
Scientists’ inability and apathy to engage with the public wreaks havoc on society. Barely one-third of Americans understand the basics of scientific inquiry, such as knowing the importance of control groups in drug trials. American students fall embarrassingly behind other countries in international assessments of science and math education, jeopardizing the next generation of science leaders. Scientists and the public remain polarized on several key science issues, including the requirement for childhood vaccines and climate change. And when 80% of Americans support mandatory labeling of food that contains DNA – which is basically all food – because they mistake DNA for being dangerous, we have a problem. (As one of my peer’s quipped: “I don’t see anything wrong with this. DNA is an acid, and acid has the potential to melt my face off.”)
None of these points, however, could ever hold a candle to when I recently learned that my mom has breast cancer. I am petrified. I am petrified to see my mom go through complex surgeries. I am petrified to see her go through radiation and toxic chemotherapy. I am petrified to see her lose her breasts, hair, identity, and energy for life. I am petrified of losing my mom.
I am also petrified of the tsunami of information charging her way. My mom is a model local government employee (she’s the Leslie Knope of administrating county-wide elections), but she doesn’t hold any degrees in science. In fact, she took her last science class more than 40 years ago.
So when my mom was put to a firing squad of doctors, I was worried. They fired complex terminology like bullets, where patients can only recoil with confusion at each hit. Hormone receptor status. HER2. Bilateral mastectomy. Cisplatin. Tamoxifen. BRCA1 and 2. Mosacisim. Triple negative.
“Any questions?” a doctor would gently ask.
“Yes…am I going to die?”
In that moment, I realized why scientists must actively communicate to non-experts. We must arm patients with the knowledge to untangle complex jargon, ask insightful questions that link diagnosis with prognosis, and empower them to be proactive and disciplined in their treatment. Patients should be educated on the evolving research of their disease to provide a holistic perspective on what is known and what is not.
“I want all the knowledge about what’s going on inside me. I want to understand everything,” my mom said. “I want to make good choices for myself. If a researcher gave me more information, I could have a fuller conversation with my doctors. Knowledge makes me feel powerful.”
But by current means, scientists remain insulated from the public. When I asked my mom to name all the scientists she knew, she could name only one: me. “I wish it was easier to get to know more scientists,” she confessed. “When I Google, I don’t know who is a researcher and who isn’t. There’s no way I can understand journal articles, so where do I turn?”
As bearers of scientific information, it is scientists’ civic and moral duty to tell the world what we know. If we don’t, we risk the spreading of misinformation, or even worse, no information at all. In turn, the public continues to view scientists as elitists and their work mysterious, expanding the gulf that divides those with science expertise from those without.
Not only has the public paid for our tenure and research, but they also continue to guide the ebb and flow of research trends by electing representatives and engaging in open discourse. By precluding their rightful access to new knowledge, scientists endanger the public’s ability to make informed decisions about their future and, as in the case of my mom, their health.
I call upon every scientist to engage proactively with the public. Open up your world to those not privileged to it. Stimulate wonder and curiosity in young, impressionable minds. Get representatives on your side about funding research for orphan diseases. Instill hope in patients who have nowhere else to turn. Share what you know, because anything less is myopic and selfish.
Let’s get to work.