(Note: This post is part of an occasional series about why science communication is important.)
Science communication is important for a lot of reasons, and I’ve already discussed some selfish ones – increased citation rates, tracking journal articles and working with funding agencies. But here’s a selfless reason: the future depends on it.
Earlier this month, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement issued the latest results of its Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The study, which was launched in 1995, is done every four years to measure international trends in mathematics and science achievement in the fourth and eighth grades.
The results, reflecting 2011 testing, placed the United States 7th and England 15th in science achievement scores among fourth graders. In science achievement among eighth graders, England rose to 9th and the U.S. fell to 10th place. By comparison, in the 1995 tests, the U.S. was 3rd and England 8th among fourth graders, while England was 10th and the U.S. 17th among eighth graders. [Note: I’m focusing on the U.S. and England, because that’s where most of my readers are.]
These scores are not where we want them to be, and not because of national pride. The world is facing significant (and often interconnected) challenges, including global climate change and an increasing population. These challenges raise difficult questions about fundamental needs, such as ensuring an adequate food supply and how to best allocate limited water resources.
These challenges cannot be fully understood, much less addressed, by a population that is not scientifically literate. We need a public that can help make informed policy decisions about these issues. And, like it or not, that’s particularly true in the U.S., given the disproportionate clout the U.S. has as a military and economic power – and as a mass consumer of resources. Furthermore, among other disciplines, future decades will see an acute need for crop scientists, meteorologists, hydrologists and engineers.
But to ensure that the next generation is capable of making informed decisions, and that we have a robust supply of scientists and researchers, we need to get children excited about science now.
To a certain extent, enthusiasm for science can begin in the classroom. It might also stem from popular science publications for kids, like Muse. But most kids first become interested in things through their parents. And that means we need to make grown-ups excited about science.
In this regard, frankly, we have our work cut out for us. Science literacy among adults is not where we’d like it to be. For example, research from the University of Michigan shows that, as of 2008, only 37 percent of adults in the U.S. accept the concept of biological evolution. (I have no idea how the other 63 percent of adults account for, say, antibiotic resistance.)
But getting adult non-scientists interested in science is definitely possible. You just have to do a good job of marketing it. I’m not talking about packaging commercials about science featuring extremely good-looking people in exotic locales (though that would probably work). I’m talking about telling stories.
People love stories. They come in a variety of formats, from comic books to movies. But they also come in newspapers, blogs and magazines. If we get excited when we talk about science, and we talk about it in language that non-experts can understand, we can get other people excited too. If the thrill of discovery is evident in the discoverer, that enthusiasm can be conveyed to the audience.
Remember the roar that went up among NASA employees when the Mars rover landed? The hugs? The grown men wiping tears out of the corners of their eyes? Even people who don’t care at all about Mars can identify with human emotion, and appreciate that this was a staggering accomplishment.
But perhaps you’re daunted by the idea of explaining your work to non-experts. After umpteen years of writing and speaking in technical jargon, the idea of explaining your most recent findings to people who might not even have gone to college may seem simply impossible. I have two ideas for you.
First, try anyway. Talk to the person who handles communication or outreach for your institution. They might be able to help. And, as I said, enthusiasm can get you pretty far.
Second, maybe you don’t focus solely on your findings. If you are a researcher, then at some point you made a decision to devote a huge chunk of your life to a specific field of study. Why? What was so fascinating that you decided to devote your academic and/or professional life to that subject? There’s a story there. You should share it.