Sunday, January 18, 2009

science communication

My final assignment last semester was a proposal for developing and assessing a community outreach program for my research in Ukenzagapia. In the process of writing the proposal, I realized a theme that came up time and time again last semester: things can go horribly wrong when the general public doesn't understand what scientists are doing.

Over the course of the semester, I saw several examples of situations that got ugly because scientists didn't communicate soon enough or clearly enough the goals and/or methods of their work with members of the community. This probably also has to do with framing, which Kent Holsinger has written about on his blog Uncommon Ground.

As part of my interdisciplinary fellowship, we learned about two cases in the Big City area where concerned and vociferous citizens brought projects to a grinding halt. The first case involved citizens who opposed ecological restoration projects, and the second was a hazardous waste treatment plan that didn't involve the local community soon enough. I think both cases were failure of scientists to effectively communicate their work. Illustrating the importance of science communication wasn't a goal of the course at all, but it turned out to be an unintended theme.

Now I see opportunities for science communication everywhere. For example, they should've had at least one entire lecture in my animal ethics class about research communication with non-scientific audiences. For heaven's sake, most of the biomedical researchers in that class may have to live in fear of violent animal rights activists for the rest of their professional lives if scientists don't speak up about what they do and direct at least part of the dialogue.

In the most unfortunate science miscommunication event, a grad student from UBC is caught up in a mess of accusations about her/his research. UBC lawyers are involved, and I'm hoping that it doesn't get out of control. The worst part about this situation is, I think, that the grad student and the accuser actually have common interests. In any case, the student is now on the defensive and so is the university.

It's very important for me both personally and professionally that Ukenzagapians as well as U.S. taxpayers understand what I do and why my research is significant. But in order for me to communicate that clearly, I've got to be sure I thoroughly understand it myself. Preparing for my prelims gives me an opportunity to construct my proposal around meaningful questions and practice communicating what I do. If only I could tell you here!

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