Why is it important for scientists to tell the public about their discoveries? The British Council's Andrew Zerzan makes the case for scientists to develop clear, direct communication skills.
Two of the biggest capability gaps amongst new scientists are communication and translation skills, according to a recent report funded by the UK government and the science industry.
Communication skills can include being aware of how many words you say in a minute and using props to explain an abstract concept.
Scientific discovery is accelerating
We live in an exceptional time of scientific discovery and – barring a major catastrophe like nuclear war or a colliding comet – we can expect innovation to only increase.
A 2014 study by the researchers Lutz Bornmann and Ruediger Mutz suggested that the number of published scientific articles has grown by eight to nine per cent per year from the period between the world wars.
Until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, it took over 70 years for scientific output to double. Before the 1930s, it picked up pace by doubling roughly every thirty years. From the World Wars to today, the rate has moved up even faster with a doubling on average of every nine years.
Informed people make better decisions
A study by the Royal Society found that scientifically informed citizens are more likely to make better decisions in their personal lives.Yet, a great amount of research and invention is not known to the public, so its benefits are not fully realised.
Globally, public policy is influenced by national opinion. If people are better informed about scientific progress, they can not only make better decisions personally, but also influence decisions that affect their towns and nations.
Civilisations can lose scientific discovery if it is poorly communicated
Roman concrete, called opus caementicium in Latin, was a revolutionary European building material from the birth of Julius Caesar to the fall of the Roman Empire nearly two millennia ago. The discovery of this man-made substance allowed for structures including the Colosseum to remain standing tall to today.
If it had been made with our modern concrete, it would be a pile of dust. Roman concrete has properties that may make it superior to modern concrete, like salt-water resistance. Some civil engineers are calling for the rediscovered ancient technology to be used for coastal construction in Wales.
At some point, over a thousand years ago, people stopped communicating the knowledge we need to produce Roman concrete. That loss, and re-discovery in the past century, is a reminder that scientific discovery isn’t sufficient by itself. Scientists must communicate what they know so that the public can use it.
People might base decisions on received wisdom instead of scientific research
Scientists have known for years that there is no connection between drinking dairy milk and producing mucous and phlegm. However, many people still stop drinking milk when they have a cold, unaware of the science.
If scientists want the public to know about current research, and if the public want to apply that knowledge to their lives, scientists need clear communication skills.
Declining trust in the mainstream media makes it even more important for scientists to clearly communicate with the public. According to the Edelman Index (link behind paywall), global trust in the media fell to a record low of 43 per cent in 2017.
Scientists must make sure research findings don’t stay within the scientific community
By contrast, a study funded by the Wellcome Trust in 2016 found that people of all ages prefer to hear directly from scientists, rather than hearing about new discoveries from other sources.
Scientists who communicate well can leverage that receptivity so that society is more informed, and can maximise the knowledge science provides us with.
Andrew Zerzan is Lead Partner and Director of Education for the British Council globally. He heads the development and management of education programmes across 100 countries. He previously worked in international development and digital technologies at the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.