Nancy Vosnidou: A Call for Science Communication

Nancy Vosnidou: A Call for Science Communication

Nancy adds her voice to our ongoing Adventures in Science Communication project with a call for scientists to speak out about their research and love of science.

After Nancy received her doctorate in molecular biophysics she spent many years in medical, pharmaceutical, and agriculture research. She is now a professional science communicator who owns a scientific communications consulting company, a mom of two daughters, and a classically trained violinist who plays with a community orchestra (but should probably still keep her day job…)

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There’s a lot of discussion lately about how to talk about big topics in science – those that get a lot of media attention, online forum arguments, social media memes, dinner conversation. Things like climate change, or GMO crops, or vaccines.

The vast majority of science, however, is about the small, narrow pieces of larger, more complex problems that all build together. In fact, all the big scientific discoveries are built on years of work by hundreds of people – tedious, repetitive, time consuming – before a final “eureka” moment worthy of public discourse is achieved. And we rarely talk about that.

The inevitable result is that public conversation revolves around the implications of some field of study, by people who do not understand the basics of the science involved. Think about the recent Ebola cases in Africa and the few cases here in the US: flashy mainstream press reports became the go-to references for millions of armchair epidemiologists. Think about how a celebrity used her voice to advocate against vaccines, without referencing a single legitimate peer-reviewed science experiment, and cost lives. Think about the fact that many members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology actively deny that climate change exists.1

Think about the fact that the average American’s understanding of science is about at the 8th grade level, and that less than half of our country knows something so fundamental as the fact that electrons are smaller than atoms.2 One quarter do not know that the earth orbits the sun.3

And yet, every single one of these people has opinions about scientific topics like nuclear power or biotechnology in agriculture or stem cell research. And they vote. And this shapes our future.

In the science communication world, we often talk about macro trends like science in social media, and information literacy, as a framework for how non-scientists perceive scientific data and form opinions. We need to reframe our science communications conversation to start talking about the smaller pieces of big science. It’s not that we lack the information to relay, we lack the ability (or desire?) to tell stories about the information in a way that actively engages and interests the public.

Look at what Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done for astrophysics – using minute details of their field to inspire imaginations and get people excited about – and understand – the bigger picture. We need scientists who can inspire people to care about the details of other scientific fields that are critical to our society yet overlooked by the popular press. We need scientists who can engage people with the fundamentals of cell biology so they have a better basis for understanding cancer research. We need people who can excite others about their studies of atmospheric gas ratios so that better conversations about climate change can occur. We need you, your science, your passion about your research, to come through to people who have no idea what you do. Every scientist needs to be a communicator.

Tell your story about your science to everyone you know. It matters.

If you would like to share your experience in science communication or your views on GMOs with us at Skepti-Forum please see our prior posts: Adventures in Science Communication and GMO Perspectives.


1 House Science Committee majority plays out the politics of climate science denialism”, essay by Rick Plitz (June 2, 2014) in Climate Science Watch.

2 Pew Research Center/Smithsonian Magazine survey “Public’s Knowledge of Science and Technology”, 2013.

3 National Science Foundation survey “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding”, 2012.

 Image Credit: Thompson Rivers University | CC