Scientists Need To Be Better Communicators!
“What good is your science if you can’t explain it to your family?”
This past weekend, we attended a workshop at Cornell on Science Communication. And this quote hit us hard.
When Dr. Mark Sarvary, a Senior Lecturer in Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University and guest speaker at the workshop, shared this with us we could relate all too well. He was speaking about the times with his family in Hungary on breaks from graduate school.
It was his grandfather who would always ask, “So, what is it that you are doing, grandson?”
This seemingly unassuming question made Sarvary realize how difficult it is to explain complex science to a broader audience. “It’s too complicated to explain...” became his reply. To which, his grandfather would insist, “...then what’s the point?”
Most people in science can relate to this interaction in some capacity, including those who are studying Food Science. Since our work involves food, an essential part of every human being’s life, everyone has a basic level of understanding. This in theory means that we should be able to explain our research at a high level to almost anyone.
Yet, there still seems to be an obvious gap between scientists communicating and the public understanding.
So...how can we improve communication within Food Science specifically? This weekend’s workshop led by Bruce Lewenstein, a Cornell professor of Science Communication, allowed us to explore this question in more depth.
Thoughts from the workshop:
The first step to becoming better communicators is to surround ourselves with people who are different. Sure. It may sound cliché, but who we surround ourselves with can be a limiting factor. If we only associate with food scientists, we will only learn to effectively communicate with like-minded individuals.
By engaging in more robust social and professional networks, we are challenged to think and learn differently--which is essential if we want others to understand our line of work.
Once our diverse network is formed, it’s pivotal to determine our audience and find out what their interests are. Who wants to know more about our work? What topics are most relevant to them and what kind of information will they find most valuable? You might find that only certain aspects of your research or work actually fits their needs. All in all, the purpose of science is learning. If we want others to learn, we need to make sure we provide the information people are actually interested in. Then, we can focus on making sure our work is in a language that can be easily understood by anyone in our intended audience.
The next piece of the puzzle is grabbing the attention of our audience. One way we can do this is is to create a story. Food scientists, for the most part, love what they do and love advocating for their work. However, conveying our messages to outsiders is challenging because of the way in which we have learned to write/communicate. We are trained to avoid the “fluff” and stick to the facts.
Now, more than ever, we need to re-train our brains. We need to learn to create imagery with our words that shows our genuine excitement, while being both relatable and engaging.
Our world is arguably the most connected it has ever been. Yet, the scientific community often struggles to share vital information in an accessible way.
Scientists within Food Science have the power to move the industry forward -- to improve public policy, inspire other research, initiate industrial action and, most importantly, to ensure that our ideas are being properly communicated.
Although there is a definite knowledge gap between academic research and public knowledge, this workshop showed us that scientists are becoming aware of this issue and making strides to improve their communication efforts.
If we’ve learned anything from this weekend...it’s that the responsibility of communication lies in the hands of scientists and it’s OUR job to see that change through.