Accidental SciComm

Photos: Possibly my nerdiest T-shirt; and town of Norris Point, Newfoundland.  Both CC BY 4.0.

Recently, I had to drop off a cheque at my university’s Donor Relations office.  I was run off my feet that day, but that office is only one building away from mine, so I figured I could pop over and be back at my desk in 3 minutes flat.  I was wrong.  It was more like 20 minutes, and the extra 17 were because I was wearing my “Two bees or not two bees” T-shirt.

I wear a lot of nerdy biology T-shirts, and one of the useful (I believe) results of that is occasional bouts of what I call Accidental SciComm.  That’s where those 17 minutes went.  The clerk at the Donor Relations welcome desk looked at me, then looked closer, and then started asking bee questions.  We talked about the difference between honeybees and bumblebees, about mimicry*, about bee declines, about buzz vs. open pollination, and about invasive species.  I left a little behind schedule but feeling like I’d taken a bit of curiosity (on the part of the clerk) and worked it into a useful little bit of science outreach.

I call this sort of thing “Accidental SciComm” because neither the clerk nor I intended to get involved in a piece of science communication that day.  I do some SciComm of the more organized sort: radio and newspaper interviews, talks to nature clubs, a series of newsletter articles for our local Botanic Garden.  I enjoy these things, but I always wonder a bit about their effectiveness.  There are two reasons for that.  I’ll admit that I’m not familiar enough with the literature on SciComm effectiveness to do more than wonder, so I’ll present these as questions, not answers:

  • Preaching to the choir. When I talk to a nature club, I find my audience enthusiastic and engaged.  You’d think that would be a good thing, but the very fact of their enthusiasm in some way counts against the value of my SciComm.  What I mean by that is that the kind of people who set out to hear about science are going to succeed – whether by attending my talk or somebody else.  If I’m not quite preaching to the choir, I’m at least preaching to the occasional churchgoer.  For radio interviews, it’s a similar story: folks who are already interested in science will listen, and others will tune out or change the station.  I wonder if the ones who are listening are the ones who least need to hear.
  • Passive engagement. Those who hear me on the radio, or giving a talk, are to some extent passive receivers of SciComm. They didn’t instigate the transfer of information, choose the topic, or decide where the conversation went next**.  I suspect I’m on solid ground suspecting that someone will retain information better and longer when it answers a question they’ve asked, rather than when it comes without connection to their prior interests.

What I like about the Accidental SciComm my T-shirt inspired is that it started with demand, not with supply.  Somebody asked me a question, and it was spontaneous: they didn’t have to make a decision to come to talk, or to read past the headline of a newspaper article.  The question, of course, was something they already cared about; I didn’t choose it for them (and while I didn’t stay right on topic, everything that followed connected to that first question).

I speculate (again, without data or literature) that these properties of Accidental SciComm make it high quality SciComm: likely leading to retention of information, by someone who might not have sought it out otherwise.  Of course, the downside of Accidental SciComm is that it’s low quantity SciComm: I had an audience of one (two if you count the fellow behind the next desk over).  How this balances out I’m not sure.

Opportunities for Accidental SciComm are frequent, I’ve found.  Sometimes it’s sparked by a T-shirt I’m wearing; sometimes by something peculiar I’m doing by the side of a walking trail.  Once, for me, it was sparked by my odd reasons for driving through a small town at night.  Pulled over by the RCMP at 3 a.m. just down from the bar in Norris Point, Newfoundland, I found myself explaining my PhD research on the insect community living inside the water-filled leaves of pitcher plants***.  For 45 minutes, mind you, at 3 a.m., with the cruiser’s lights flashing all the while, and I don’t think my PhD defense was any more stressful.  Not every Accidental SciComm opportunity is quite that dramatic, but I’ve learned to recognize them when they come.

Do you have an Accidental SciComm story?  Share it with us, please, in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  February 12, 2018


*^The “not two bees” at the bottom are a hoverfly (family Syrphidae; at left) and a clearwing sphinx moth (family Sphingidae; at right).  The hoverfly is probably a hornet mimic, but is frequently confused with bees anyway; the moth is a bumblebee mimic.

**^Of course, at least at an in-person talk there’s opportunity for questions from the audience to steer the talk.  But normally, that’s steering within a rather narrow and predetermined course.

***^Why 3 a.m.?  I wanted to document the daily temperature cycle my insects were dealing with, but in the 1980s dataloggers were expensive and I didn’t have one.  So every hour I drove out to my study bog, with at thermometer, and back again.  I can understand why this eventually sparked some law-enforcement curiosity.

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6 thoughts on “Accidental SciComm

  1. Macrobe

    Great story! And, yes, those accidental, even incidental science exchanges are enjoyable. While returning from a walk alongside the Erie Canal last summer two ladies visiting from Canada stopped to ask me what I was eagerly photographing (two monarch butterflies mating on a bright orange flower). That segued into a long exchange of questions and information about the species, their biology and habitat.

    I also ask questions during these encounters. In addition to demonstrating my interest in the exchange, it reinforces a connection and provides an opportunity to covertly delve into the foundations of their thinking and decision making. Furthermore, as in the case of these friendly and entertaining ladies, it’s my chance to gain some insight and anecdotal observations on the topic species in their area of origin.
    I consider that time well spent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Jeremy Lundholm

    Great shirt!! The students in my lab often encounter members of the public while conducting field work (as do most others involved with fieldwork, I’m sure). We view these encounters as very important (for the reasons Steve mentioned), but they can also take up a lot of time. We have also had negative encounters with local people who are suspicious of science or who are opposed to our activities (placing flagging tape or other research paraphenalia on site) as they have a negative visual impact on their use of the same public lands. As it’s usually the students who are ground zero for these encounters, they need training on how to handle such situtations in the field. For all these reasons, we are instituting a “workshop” on this kind of SciComm for new members to the lab before the upcoming field season (and as a refresher for our old hands). It will contain advice on the kinds of things that are important to mention (especially in cases of confrontation: including “We are legally allowed to do this research; here’s a copy of our permit; this is why this research is important), the importance of having a bus-stop or elevator talk at the ready, conversational time management, and considerations of personal safety in such situations. I see this kind of training as an important part of the research supervisor job.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Anon

    As an academic with a chronic illness, I do a tremendous amount of “accidental scicomm” when interacting with various medical professionals.

    Sometimes this pretty clearly isn’t actually scicomm: need to assess a scientist’s cognitive state? Ask them to explain their research. Need to distract a scientist from the painful thing being done to them? Ask them to explain their research.

    But sometimes whoever I’m talking to really does seem interested and really doesn’t have to be talking to me in that moment, and it’s fun to get to talk about Cute Fuzzy Animal Biology in an otherwise dismal setting.

    Liked by 2 people

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