SciComm, and who should do it

Image: From Science Borealis’ project “100 Voices for Canadian Science Communication”; © The Vexed Muddler, reproduced with permission.  That’s me as a Cobblestone Tiger Beetle, Cicendela marginipennis – a beautiful beetle, vulnerable because of its locally rare and very scattered distribution in riverbank cobble habitats from Alabama to New Brunswick.


Some months ago, the Canadian blogging aggregator Science Borealis solicited thoughts about what lay science communication, or SciComm, is and why it’s important.  I sent in the thoughts above and promptly forgot about it.  Last week I was startled, pleased, and just the tiniest bit uneasy to see my quote making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook (wonderfully illustrated by The Vexed Muddler).

Why uneasy?  I’m quite happy with what I said – but me pontificating on SciComm seems a bit of a reach because I’m not all that active in that enterprise.  Scientist Sees Squirrel, for example, is mostly written with other scientists in mind – although I’m pleased when non-scientists read it, and there are exceptions among my posts.  In this sense, Scientist Sees Squirrel is more about science community than science communication (I’ll expand on this in an upcoming post, as soon as I figure out what I think about it. UPDATE: here it is.)  I do other SciComm (radio appearances, classroom visits, nature club walks and talks, and so on), and I enjoy it very much, but it isn’t a big component of my portfolio.

Lately there’s been a burst of discussion about SciComm as important (which I agree with) but also as a moral imperative for all scientists.  I think that goes way too far.  I stand behind every word of my Science Borealis quote, but nothing there implies that every scientist needs to do SciComm.  Actually, I don’t think there’s anything that every scientist needs to do.  Not every scientist needs to train graduate students.  Not every scientist needs to teach undergraduates.  Not every scientist needs to advise public policymakers.  Not every scientist needs to edit a journal, or serve as Departmental Chair, or judge science fairs, or provide expert testimony at trials, or – well, you get the idea.

Actually, I think we can state this more strongly.  For almost any X that’s part of the broad portfolio of What Scientists Do, there are some scientists who shouldn’t do X.  There are scientists who shouldn’t train grad students, scientists who shouldn’t teach undergraduates, and scientists who shouldn’t do SciComm.  Sometimes that’s because their temperaments would lead them to do really bad jobs.  Sometimes it’s because their lack of skill or training or interest would have the same result.  What each of us should do is develop a portfolio of activities that

  • moves science forward,
  • takes advantages of our own strengths,
  • complements the portfolios of those around us, and
  • is consistent with the job we’re in.

So if you’re one of those scientists who doesn’t want to (or shouldn’t) teach undergrads, that doesn’t mean you’re useless to science; but it does mean you shouldn’t expect to be a professor at a college or university with a strong undergraduate emphasis.  If you’re one who doesn’t want to (or shouldn’t) do SciComm, that doesn’t make you morally deficient; but it does mean you shouldn’t expect a career in science journalism or with a university extension service.  In either case,  you’ll need to be complemented by those around you – either locally (as with a university research appointment complemented by others with teaching appointments) or more globally (as a non-SciComm-active scientist complemented by the SciComm activities of journalists, bloggers, and other scientists).  There’s nothing unusual about that; all of us are complemented by those around us.  Science writ large (like most things) is done best by teams in which members play specialized roles reflecting their strengths and interests.

So I’m going to forgive myself for pontificating on SciComm while spending relatively little time actually doing it.  I’m going to keep doing some of it, mind you – because I enjoy it, and because it makes me feel good to have contributed to such an important thing.  But I’m going to keep contributing to a lot of other important things, too, and thus complement those around me who devote more of their effort than I do to SciComm.  It really does take a village.

© Stephen Heard ( September 12, 2016

UPDATE: Josh King has just expanded on this topic very nicely. I have to reluctantly admit that his post is better than mine!

16 thoughts on “SciComm, and who should do it

  1. Ambika Kamath

    I’ve been following this debate on twitter and find myself squarely in the middle. I don’t think every scientist can and should communicate with the public directly–it’s a different, difficult skill set to develop. But I do think that every scientist should be capable of expressing why their work is interesting to people outside of their field. I’m sure no one would disagree with that; in fact it’s easy to agree with, because “outside your field” is such a big place. But one can be more specific, and this is where I stand: I think all scientists should be able to describe what they do to a science journalist in a way that has the potential to capture the imagination of interested lay people. This stand forces scientists to consider their work in a bigger picture, but doesn’t put them into (a) the position of having to convince *everybody* that their work is valuable (that’s impossible) and (b) requires them to learn the smaller, more manageable skill set of communicating with a journalist, who is well-trained to have such conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeremy Fox


    I am getting increasingly sick of hearing people on the intertubes argue that all scientists should do X, especially when accompanied by the claim that it’s a moral imperative for all scientists to do X. Even when X is something I like and do! I’ve seen more than one widely-shared piece arguing that all scientists should blog. It’s a good thing that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, because it’s a terrible idea even from the incredibly narrow perspective of “what would be good for the blogosphere”.

    Here are examples of things all scientists should do:
    -Don’t plagiarize
    -Don’t falsify your work

    It would be interesting to know what causes people to say that “everyone should do X”. How often is it that someone really likes X, hangs around with others who like X, and so overgeneralizes from their own example? How often is it people forgetting that “X is good” or “we need more of X” don’t imply “everyone should do X”, for all sorts of reasons? (Y might be even better than X; we’d have too much of X and not enough of other things if everyone did X; some people are bad at X; comparative advantage means we’re all better off if everyone plays to their strengths; etc.) How often is it people writing badly–writing “everyone should do X” when all they really meant was “X is good” or whatever? How often is it people trying to be deliberately provocative, not realizing that “why everyone should do X” has long since become a cliche on the intertubes?

    Shameless self-promotion: an old post talking about this in another context, curriculum design. Everyone seems to think that ecologists should be taught more of X, where “X” is all sorts of things. But nobody ever says what ecologists should learn *less* of, to free up the time for them to learn more of X…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      [claps back]

      Your list of things all scientists should do can be both expanded and compressed as follows:

      – Don’t be evil.

      Now I just need to check if any massive corporations have snatched that out from under us…. 🙂


      1. Jeremy Fox

        The trouble with “don’t be evil” is that it doesn’t stop people elevating controversial claims and personal preferences to the level of Universal Goods. Think of how, to some, “don’t be evil” means “don’t publish in anything but author-pays open access journals.”

        This is an area in which pithy slogans are not your friend.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. whatfisheat

    There is a paper by Fischhoff called “The sciences of science communication” which argues that scientifically sound science communication demands expertise from multiple disciplines, including (a) subject matter scientists, to get the facts right; (b) decision scientists, to identify the right facts, so that they are not missed or buried; (c) social and behavioral scientists, to formulate and evaluate communications, and (d) communication practitioners, to create trusted channels among the parties.

    I think there is nothing wrong with fitting squarely within the subject matter scientist as long as you are doing that, getting the facts right (i.e., not being evil).

    As someone is drifting over into the science communication lane, I do think there can be a bit of contempt (maybe too strong of a word) for the value of science communication among *some* scientists. So in my opinion, I would like to see attitudes change rather than have everyone actively participating in science communication.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Terry McGlynn

    Sweeping generalizations (like the moral imperative bunk about science communication) are good rhetoric to get people to listen (and disagree or agree vehemently), but not really for advancing policy or practices that really make a difference. (Um, if that previous sentence was a sweeping generalization, I plead guilty as charged.)

    There was an argument by pseudoscientific hack Malcolm Gladwell about his response to charges that oversimplifying things. He said he thinks it’s his *job* to oversimplify, to communicate with the public. His rationale is that oversimplifications get the conversation started, and then people engaged in the conversation can then fill in the details with their own further research into the matter. In other words, he’s okay with getting it wrong. I think that’s woefully mistaken, because it’s oversimplification about things like climate and food safety that’s only contributed to a misinformed public. We shouldn’t operate with a “deficit model” to tell fill in gaps of what people don’t know, but what we do say shouldn’t be oversimplified.

    So talking about an oversimplified idea about there being moral imperative to communicate our science with the public is a nonstarter for me.


    1. Jeremy Fox

      “Sweeping generalizations (like the moral imperative bunk about science communication) are good rhetoric to get people to listen”

      Hmm…are they? I mean, “why everybody should do X” has been a clickbait cliche for years. Does it even work as deliberate provocation any more, in the sense of drawing more readers, and getting them to listen more seriously than they would have to a more nuanced thesis?

      Unanswerable question, I know. FWIW, I doubt it. But I may be overgeneralizing from my own usual reaction to “why everybody should do X” rhetoric, which is to roll my eyes and not click through.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        There’s a straw man on each side here, I think. Jeremy, I agree that too-sweeping a generalization, like the “everyone has to do SciComm” I criticized, doesn’t work except possibly to generate clicks. (Yes, you are an oddball for being able to resist). But at the same time I see Gladwell’s point. We do ourselves a disservice, in SciComm and in teaching both, if we lead with the most complicated uncertain story and then build gradually to some kind of conclusion – because by the time we get there, nobody has gotten there with us. I think it’s more effective to start with a bolder statement and then go “But…”. It’s a fine line, though, especially on controversial topics where the bold statement is likely to be picked up and the ‘but’ ignored.


        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          And by the way: this post has had pretty low traffic. I suspect it would have had a lot more had I titled it “No, all scientists should not do SciComm”. That’s a bit clickbaity, but to be honest I would have used it – except that I wrote the title first, and then the post evolved a bit as I wrote it, and I never reconsidered the title. I suck at titles.


  5. Josh King (@joshkking)

    Thanks for the regards! Lot of good discussion going on here. I like that everyone can still be for more science engagement but still think critically about it. And to be honest, it sounds like you do fairly more public engagement than you’re giving yourself credit for.


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