I just read a great article in Scientific American on the difficulties and importance of communicating science. Marcus du Sautoy is an award-winning mathematician and professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. In addition to his research, he is a passionate advocate for communicating scientific research to not only the general public, but also to scientists in other disciplines.
According to de Sautoy, when scientific research is effectively communicated to the public, “the public is then in a much better position to make judgements on what we should be doing about the energy crisis or whether we should give the okay to stem cell research.” This is a great point, but how do we accomplish conveying potentially dry information to an uninterested audience? Du Sautoy proposes that scientist need to learn how to become better storytellers and that “universities need to do a much better job at training scientists to communicate and become storytellers.” Ironically, in preparation for a presentation I was recently asked to give to an audience outside of my discipline, my advisor encouraged me to explain my research as if I were telling a story and to make the story entertaining. “Otherwise, you’ll be talking to yourself.” What tips have you received that have helped you communicate your research to the general public?
Interdepartmental communication of science can nearly as difficult as connecting with the general public. De Sautoy attributes this disconnect between disciplines to “linguistic barriers” and the tendency of scientists to specialize. Despite this communication barrier, de Sautoy foresees the next great scientific breakthroughs arising from discoveries in the narrow borders between subjects. Thus, he has been facilitating cross-departmental conversation groups and podcast debates to stimulate multidisciplinary research. Personally, I think Virginia Tech is moving in the right direction for improving interdisciplinary communication. For example, in 2016, three departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Science will be merging to improve cross-discipline collaboration. However, I think it will take more than just merging of departments to really stimulate collaboration. I like the idea of “conversation groups” amongst researchers from different disciplines. Have you ever participated in a research discussion group between scientists of multiple disciplines?