The scientific community is in transition. No longer are scientists only under pressure to conduct research and publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. The continuing evolution of the Internet as a means to create, disseminate, learn, discuss and debate issues has also brought pressure on those scientists who accept the challenge to help the broader public understand the complex issues affecting our lives.

Many people are anxious to better understand the science behind the issues that affect us all. What was the reason for the worst US drought since the 1950s in summer 2012? What are the implications of accelerated oil sands extraction for the boreal landscape of northern Alberta and the global climate? The list of questions for scientists is long ranging from how to maintain food production on a shrinking land base as a result of urban expansion, to water security in the dry Prairie Provinces as headwater glaciers shrink.

But misinformation abounds in the public sphere outside universities and labs. Although the scientific consensus about human-induced climate change is clear, there is still a proportion of the public who are skeptical or in denial of its existence. This public confusion might partly be due to effective campaigns by interest groups who are lobbyists for large industries such as the oil and gas industries. But it also stems from the fact that many of the scientists conducting research in these complex and highly uncertain fields have failed to effectively communicate the underlying science to the public.

This communications “illiteracy” in the scientific community is increasingly recognized internally as a problem. Some science-based organizations, for example, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have adapted to the proliferation of digital media by revamping the traditional academic approach to public relations, recruiting scientists to engage public participation in research via large-scale citizen science programs. These and other scientists are developing a proactive approach. They are beginning to learn the media skills to take advantage of new tools — from interactive graphics to the explosion of online video — and make a scientific case to a wired public.

An increasing number of scientists are not waiting for the media to knock on their door to ask questions but are actively pushing their science into the public domain. They are trying to translate their research findings into a more accessible public language, often by means of blogs, videos, Facebook and other social media.

This move comes with potential problems — questions of copyright, intellectual property and a risk of losing credibility among fellow scientists when labelled as an advocate, to name a few. But they are learning to navigate waters previously sailed only by a few specialized mainstream journalists and communications professionals. They are learning the “style” to communicate with the public, as scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson puts it in his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.

At the University of British Columbia, we have developed a science communications training program for graduate researchers who are studying a variety of global change issues. The TerreWEB program uses hands-on workshops, among other tools, to teach these graduate students the skill of storytelling: how to translate science into stories that engage people by drawing on elements of the arts and humanities.

Scientists are adapting to digital media.

In September 2012, Olson visited TerreWEB and taught 21 students how to tell compelling stories about their research, using video as a medium. He stressed that the earlier in their careers young scientists learn about storytelling, the easier it will be for them to communicate with fellow scientists, reach out to stakeholders, and gain an advantage in securing funding for their research — an increasingly time-consuming necessity in academic careers.

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His message was clear: being a brilliant scientist alone does not guarantee the science will be heard and applied. The facts do not speak for themselves, as many scientists like to believe. As Olson points out: It is not about bending the science, it is about making scientific results accessible through compelling storytelling.

In Olson’s workshop, students were required to pitch an idea for a one-minute video that would establish a science-related myth in the viewers’ minds, and then set it straight. A key step in this process is identifying their target audience in order to best tailor the message. Students listened to all pitches before voting for their favourite projects. They split into groups and refined their scripts before shooting and editing their videos.

In three days, students with minimal to no prior experience had created powerful video messages. The topics ranged from wetlands to evolution to the dangers of delayed action on climate change. One video that outlined the importance of the biological connectedness between species was so popular that it was posted on Web sites and science blogs, including the New York Times‘ influential Dot Earth blog. The video was viewed over 2,000 times in the first two days and has received almost 5,000 views on YouTube. If these numbers seem low compared with more viral videos on dancing cats and celebrity fails, consider that most scientific publications are read only by a handful of peers. And this was a university workshop exercise. Imagine the potential audience if the aim had been to drive significant traffic to a target audience.

This is not to say that the era of scientific publication is over. The scientific peer-review process in established journals is essential to ensure higher quality science and the continued improvement of our body of knowledge. Nevertheless, publishing in a scientific journal alone does not guarantee that important findings will reach the audience that will most be affected by or will benefit from it. Furthermore, as many scientists work for publicly funded universities, they have a moral obligation to deliver to taxpayers scientific results that may change their lives for the better.

As we begin to recognize that the communication of science is crucial, academic programs will emerge to train and educate young scientists themselves in the methods of the new mediums. Compared with other science communication programs, TerreWEB is unique in its combination of research with state-of-the-art communications and the social sciences. The goal is to establish an interdisciplinary and collaborative graduate training program focused on issues to do with global change, enriched with traditional communication skills such as public speaking as well as social media, video, gaming, and the use of mobile applications. Our Masters and PhD students and our postdoctoral fellows come from a variety of backgrounds, such as forest sciences, journalism, resource management, atmospheric science and geography.

For too long, scientists were content to operate within their labs and in the ivory towers of the university, believing their science speaks for itself. They lamented that if the public did not understand the implications of their work, it was the fault of a scientifically illiterate public and politicians, or a mass media oriented toward the sensational. But they were not prepared to change that dynamic.

The digital revolution has left science with no choice but to embrace new media. If scientists refuse to make their research and findings and knowledge accessible in ways that the public and politicians can understand, the vacuum will be filled by others, who will stake their own claim to a version of the truth. The climate change “debate” is a frightening example of what happens when good scientists fail to communicate. The stakes are too high to sit by and cede the public discourse to bad science.

Photo: Shutterstock

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