May 22, 2013
Long ago, I left the lab in order to “make science cool.” I forged my way into science communications, starting a science consulting agency to work with Hollywood screenwriters (where I consulted with sci-fi movie set decorators and screenwriters and producers such as Ed Solomon (X-Men) and Josh Brand, creator of “Northern Exposure”), and answering “ASK a scientist” questions for AOL and Earthlink in the early days of the internet. I got my big break when I was hired as a researcher on a TLC magazine show and worked my way up to producing science documentaries for TV networks such as Discovery, TLC, Sci-Fi Channel, National Geographic, and PBS. The world of science communication, especially online, has changed drastically since those times.
Admittedly late to the party (by a few years), I was struck by the ScienceOnline (#sciox) thunderbolt at this year’s #AAASmtg in Boston. I found myself among a highly-engaged group of people (aka Tweeps) using social media to communicate about science. Using conference-wide, topical, and panel specific hashtags (eg #AAASmtg, #sciart, #scicomm), attendees were able to broadcast what they learned, extend discussion, add links and sources, and network with each other beyond the physical conference space. Other users were then able to gather all that live-tweeting together into stories about particular panels on Storify, preserving the tweets and discussion for future reference; the linked story is just one of many examples from the conference. Wow! This really got us thinking about how science communication happens, how it benefits the science and the public, and what our role is here at ASKlabs.
After the excitement of the AAAS Meeting in February, especially around science, media, and communication, we helped to launch the inaugural activities of the fledgling ScienceOnline Boston chapter! (Twitter @sciobeantown or sign up for the Sciobeantown Google Group.) Our monthly Tweetups are a terrific way to meet area science communicators and journalists, science writers and bloggers.
Top: @Sciobeantown on Twitter. Below: #Sciobeantown April 2013 Tweetup at Za’s in Kendall Square (@biochembelle, @blattanzi, @easternblot, @haleybridger, @erinpodolak)
The communication tools available for scientists and science writers have multiplied exponentially, as have the potential audiences online. In fact, this Fall, MIT is hosting a special workshop called “The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement,” highlighting the kinds of changes occurring in science communication and, consequently, engagement. These changes mean more public access to science and to scientists! And hopefully, this will lead to a reversal of the shockingly low science literacy rates, which despite having tripled over the past two decades is only 28% among the US public (J. Raloff. Science News, March 13, 2010; Vol.177 #6. p. 13.)
However, it seems that scientists themselves haven’t necessarily caught up with the technology or the possibilities of social media. Social media is a continually growing medium for communication, while print (newspapers, journals, and magazines) are on the decline. Evidence to support this can be found, among other places, the online open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology: “An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists.”
Science writers such as Christie Wilcox have called on scientists to focus on communication, and especially to learn how to use social media to spread the word about research. But more than just pointing out the need for and benefits of communicating to the public about science, these science writers have gone a step further and offered how-tos (from Jonathan Eisen), wikis (Christie Wilcox), workshops (Chris Mooney), and other resources to help scientists achieve social-media proficiency. There are even businesses like Compass Online which work to train scientists in social media and communication, and others like Science Sites that help scientists establish themselves online with websites and social media. Once established, scientists (as well as science writers already online, of course) can use metrics services like Impact Story or Orcid to figure out the kinds of audiences they’re reaching, and the kind of impact they’re making.
Obviously, there are a lot of scientists already using social media and communicating well. Those mentioned above are all scientists who blog, tweet, and generally engage in online science discussions. They are also helpfully encouraging other scientists to do the same. There are probably too many scientists online and science writers to name individually (for example, see the popularity of the Science Online annual conference!) but certainly Scicurious, Veronique Greenwood, and Virginia Hughes could be mentioned. Scientists who engage online, alongside science writers and bloggers, are amping up the level of scientific communication, particularly through social media.
L: Screenshot of SNFS Wiki; R: Oli Scarff/Getty Images from The Guardian “Are Scientists Normal People?” by Steve Caplan
Aside from social media, there are also academic articles and themed journal issues published on the benefits and strategies of social media communication for science and scientists. Among other important observations, these point out that, for NSF funded projects, “Broader Impacts” requirements might be met by social media engagement.
Communicating about science is not just good for scientists and their research (introducing them to new networks and conversations) it’s good for everyone. Indeed, a democracy strengthened by an informed technology-literate public is an asset to everyone’s future.
-- Alberta Chu
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