Gage Skidmore

Communicating Science for Impact

In June 2017, the findings of an international multi-institutional research study was published in Molecular Psychiatry, a Nature Group scientific journal. The study, led by the Autism Research Centre of the University of Cambridge, UK, worked with nearly 90,000 people from different parts of the world to perform the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.’ Correlating the test data with genomic data, the team found that women had greater genetic traits and ability for cognitive empathy, i.e., they were better than men in reading the mental status of the other person by reading what their eyes tell.

Sounds interesting, does it? The original paper, titled “Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition,” was difficult for a lay person to read and understand. To make matters easy, the University of Cambridge issued a press release on this paper. It was titled “Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes.”

If that was not easy enough, the introductory paragraph clarified: “Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.” The press release further goes on to explain the research and how recent breakthroughs in genomic analysis have confirmed earlier Eyes Test results. The release mentioned, in its later paragraphs, about how women were better than men in reading the mind through the eyes.

The press release became international news the next day, the media having picked up the point that women are better than men at reading eyes. This became the media angle for even lifestyle magazines. Indian publications also emphasized the fact that one of the researchers was an Indian.

This example of the transition of a journal article that is scientific gobbledygook for the lay reader to a story that made its appearance even on the lifestyle pages is a case of effective scientific communication. The information officers at the University of Cambridge could look at scientific research from the perspective of journalists and could assess its news potential. They had the nose for news. They could convert the paper into a press release which kept the main focus of the findings intact, even while dangling a hook to attract journalists.

Why was it important for the university to even issue a press release? Why is it important that the results of scientific research should reach the public? The research team had after all had only done their work and communicated it to the scientific community through a peer-reviewed journal article. Why is it necessary to let the world know of their work?

Scientific research does not happen in isolation to the society. Much of this research is funded by governmental institutions, and the tax paying public needs to know – at least once in a while – that their money is being spent judiciously and effectively. When media writes about scientific research, the public understands its impact, and through them the policy makers. The policy makers can then appreciate the frontiers of scientific understanding that can help them in policy making.

Science needs communication for impact. The communication can be between scientists through the publication of papers in peer-reviewed journals. It could be to the media through press releases and press meetings organised by research institutions. It could be accomplished by science journalists reporting breakthroughs through print, radio, television or online publications. It could be for advocating action from policy makers through policy briefs. It could be for strengthening public understanding through public service advertisements. It could be scientists or journalists communicating through new media channels – blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagrams, etc.

At the heart of any communication is the art of storytelling. Science is the process of discovering new frontiers of understanding. Only effective communication can spread the excitement and passion that keeps scientists working to stretch the boundaries of human understanding. Society needs to be a part of the science story. Lab to land application of scientific and technological innovations happen through this communication. Only then will the public, policy makers or private institutions identify areas for funding in scientific research and technological innovation.

For instance, the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are designed to periodically review the latest scientific understanding related to climate change and its relationship to extreme weather events, sea level rise, glacial melt, increases in ocean temperature, drought and floods. These documents help provide the scientific truth to policy makers on a subject such as climate change, which also has strong political and economic ramifications. If there was no scientific benchmarking for the heads of state of more than 190 countries through the IPCC Assessment Report 5 finalized in October 2014, there would not have been a Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

It is this report, through its Summary for Policymakers that communicated the seriousness of adverse impacts that could befall the world if the heads of nations continued with business as usual, without mitigating emissions and taking steps to adapt to climate change. The report, combined with media backgrounders, press releases and media briefings by respected scientists, helped the world media understand the significance of climate change. This in turn strengthened public understanding on climate change, so that societies could pressure their leaders to come to an agreement in Paris in December 2015.

Can scientific communicators be trained? Yes, and this process involves understanding the principles of science and communication; acquiring the skills required for effective scientific communication; getting a knowledge of value-added aspects; and then putting these into practice. All scientific institutions must have programs to train and orient their scientists in communicating science.