Why Should Scientists Bother Talking to the Public?

Graham Farmelo is Head of Exhibitions in the London Science Museum's Welcome Wing, opening June 2000.

There is no point in scientists trying to talk to the public--it does more harm than good. That was the belief of Wilhelm Röntgen, discoverer of x-rays. Was he right?

There is a case for young scientists, at the peak of their creative power, to opt out of the communication business. It seems only sensible for them to concentrate on making their reputations and to leave the publicity to others, with time on their hands.

This is what is happening now, despite all the brave rhetoric about the need for scientists to get off their backsides and talk to the public. Science communication is mainly the province of those whose careers in the subject are pretty well over. As a researcher once put it to me: "Those who can do science, get on with it; those who can't, tell the public about it."

One consequence of this is that science's public face is older than it should be. When science is in the news, the spokespeople are almost always scientists who are nearer retirement than graduation. Journalists understandably complain about this: When a group makes a big discovery, they want to hear from the researchers at the frontline, not the blurb from the group leader or from a veteran science communicator. Young scientists should have far more opportunities to shine in the media.

A much more serious issue is the decline in the public's trust in scientists. Mad cow disease, genetically modified foods, nuclear waste disposal, bungled space missions, cloning--for controversial issues like these, laypeople blame scientists. This is unfair in many cases. The issues are sensitive because they have been bungled by people and institutions responsible for turning science into usable technology, and by governments. But, whether we like it or not, scientists are having to shoulder much of the blame. They are the fall guys of the moment.

Why should a young researcher give a damn about this? Who cares if the public is suspicious, angry, and confused? There is every reason to be worried, if only because the public pays for most fundamental scientific research. If the public doesn't trust scientists, you can bet that politicians will be much more reluctant to spend taxes on research.

Governments, always on the lookout for cuts they can make to unessential expenditure, will be justified in cutting spending on programs that don't directly contribute to the economy in the short term. Just look at how the U.S. government brutally cut the Supercollider project in Texas when it saw that there was no political capital to be gained in keeping it.

The only way to ensure the long-term health of fundamental research--research for its own sake, not for the sake of the economy--is for scientists to persuade the public of the value of their work. Persuasion is only ever achieved through trust, something that is patently lacking at the moment. How can it be won?

The usual answer is that scientists must spend much more time talking to the public in language it understands. But this is only part of the solution. To make a real impact in the lay community, scientists have to not only communicate, but do so effectively. This is quite a challenge--as we know from having to sit through hour after hour of poorly presented talks, most scientists cannot communicate effectively with each other, let alone with laypeople.

Scientists are generally rewarded for their achievements in science, not in communication. What is needed is a concerted effort to improve the communication skills of scientists, possibly through the much-maligned route of training. My guess is that a few days of communication training, followed by practice that's supported and encouraged by experts, would speedily achieve results.

The most successful scientists are those like Röntgen, who single-mindedly pursue science, with little or no involvement with the media. But perhaps the time has come to rethink this role model. Michael Faraday was not only preeminent in his field but a brilliant science communicator; he spent half his time in the lab, half in the lecture theatre. It is high time we acknowledged that his priorities were right, and that Röntgen's were wrong.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers