Science communication in 2017: A Meta Perspective

– by Lia Paola Zambetti, PhD | Senior Project Officer | Research Development and Collaboration | The University of Sydney – 

To use a famous quote attributed to both Woody Allen and Eugene Ionesco: “God is dead, Marx is dead and science communication does not feel too well either.” At first glance, science communication suffers a credibility problem in academia. This, it seems, is a symptom of a larger problem involving science itself. Do you remember Michael Gove saying that “people have had enough of experts1” in the UK? Such a quip echoes a widespread feeling worldwide: in the current era of alternative facts, where does science communication stand? Is there any space for an authoritative and unbiased reporting of science and, if so, what does it look like?

Let’s start with an overview of the landscape. Compared to 15 or 20 years ago, before the Internet became such a massive presence in our lives, the current scenario would have been unrecognizable. Scientific communication now takes place mainly online, rather than in libraries or through printed papers. This holds true for both academic and mainstream publishing. The outlets for any form of science communication have grown exponentially from a few journals, magazines, and TV programs to literally thousands of online websites2-5, blogs and podcasts. The traditional, “official” science mouthpieces, such as Nature, Science, and perhaps the science pages of the main national newspapers now have to fight for attention in a more atomised, highly centrifugal landscape where thousands of voices clamour for attention. The exponential growth of online journals, including predatory ones (i.e., those charging for publication while providing poor or no peer review), together with a general sense of mistrust in experts, provides a perfect storm for an overall devaluation of science communication. This would in turn lead to the perception of science as a force for good being eroded.

In particular, there are three main issues that science communication, specifically academic publishing, is facing currently:

  1. Risk communication is a challenge for researchers and science communicators alike. What is the best way to communicate small risks that depend on a large number of interconnected factors? There are continuous “breakthrough announcements of cures for cancer” and “coffee/wine/chocolate is good/bad for you”. As much as it is poor reporting, it is also down to an inherent difficulty that we humans have in properly understanding statistics and grasping risks. This is especially true for relative risks, such as “doing X will double your risk of having Y”… which sounds very serious until you find that said risk goes from 1% to 2% and it may well be negligible. In general, it is always best to mention absolute risk, for example: “generally, Y people will have X condition. If they all do Z, the people having X will pass from X to X + (however many)” – but how frequently does that happen? Many, if not most, science outlets – including ones aimed at specialists – stumble on risk communication at some point. So this issue is always worthy of extra attention. The blog Understanding Uncertainty6 provides some advice to the confused, be it lay public or other non-specialists.  The blog is produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  2. On a deeper, more systemic level, we have the reproducibility crisis. There is a loud debate about how much of the science published nowadays is actually reproducible given that reproducibility is one of the gold standard of science. If some findings can be replicated independently, it usually means they are reliable and will stand the test of time. Scientists of many disciplines are actually concerned that a lot of the research produced nowadays is not reproducible7 by an independent, competent party – many have tried themselves to no avail. And, indeed, it seems their concerns are well placed. For example, a campaign was launched to reproduce the results of 50 influential cancer studies and the results so far have been mixed (see here8 for a comment on the results obtained so far and here9 for an overview of the project). One could also argue that when researchers, especially young ones, are under an insane pressure to publish as much as possible – the “publish or perish” model – the probability of producing lower science quality goes up. Ultimately, it impacts reproducibility. It makes sense: when you are pressed for time and that one article makes the difference between your lab closing or surviving another year, you may not be as careful in validating your results as one should given the lack of time. And this is not even considering that most experiments, at least in STEM, deal with living things that may behave very differently even from a similar starting point!                                                                                                                               
  3. Finally, there is an ongoing debate on whether academic science publishing as we know it is sustainable long-term. Does it still match the best interest of the scientific community? This would be a topic for an entirely new article, but it is enough to say that many analysts think that the current model, based on paywalls, free peer review (provided by scientists that give up their time for free to help scientific progress) and very high revenues, is showing cracks and will come crashing down in the future. This article10 provides a detailed and documented view on what many perceive to be wrong with scientific publishing nowadays. The Open Access movement, started in 2005 by PLOS11, is now spreading and gaining traction, but – tellingly- it is still sometimes seen as an “outsider” to the “traditional” players now and its publications are still occasionally seen as “second class citizens” in the landscape of scientific publishing.

The points above refer chiefly to academic scientific communication. While they are also relevant for the general public, especially the reproducibility issue, they are mostly a concern for scientists and academic publishers. However, science communication at large also has its own issues. For example, there is strong public polarization around topics such as vaccines or climate change, which absorb attention and airtime/column space away from a wealth of other scientific issues in mainstream media. Even more importantly, these topics are portrayed as if the scientific community were split 50/50 in favour/not in favour, while they are very clear to the overwhelming majority (>99%) of scientists. It’s an inaccurate reporting of what the scientific consensus is, and it can have far-reaching consequences.

We asked Nick Perkins, former director at SciDev.Net12 and a journalist with over 20 years of experience, for his take on the main issues faced by science communication nowadays:

“Science communication is at an interesting crossroads. On one hand the idea of informed debate is proving to be a threatened myth because, among other factors, scientifically verifiable evidence has proven to be insufficient to inform people. On the other hand, there is more opportunity to shape social policy and discourse if science communication can find a way to respond. So the sector is faced with questions about why and how it will remain relevant into the 21st century. To respond requires a delicate balance of old fashioned principles and subversive creativity.”

The picture so far is not very rosy – an erosion of the traditional science communication channels coupled with some systemic issues threatening science and research per se and being reflected in how we communicate it.

But is it really that bad? How are trainees in science (e.g., undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs) impacted by the current conditions in science communication? Share your insights with us on Twitter @stemadvocacy. 

Photo from PixabayCC0 Creative Commons

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

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