A minor debate erupted this week about the extent to which researchers should rely on intermediaries to communicate science to the general public. Yes, researchers know their stuff best, and yes, professional science communicators, such as science journalists, have external motivations (i.e. making a living), so they are not pure in the eyes of science. We should still work with them.
Ideally, all scientists would take care of their own science communication, and we wouldn’t need science communicators. However, just as there are excellent researchers whom no one should accuse of being good communicators, there are excellent communicators who wouldn’t actively engage in scientific and academic research. It seems to me that given these basic conditions, a reasonable division of labour can be imagined.
Many researchers do their own communication, and they are excellent at it. I am no Kristina Killgrove or John Hawks, but I have been known to successfully interact with the masses here and there. Even for those who can communicate with the public (rather than ‘to’ the public), science communicators offer the opportunity of reaching larger audiences than they could on their own. For those who would never dream of engaging the public directly, or who would like to but don’t know where to start, science communicators can be the only avenue for bringing their research to the larger world.
Choosing your intermediary
Not all researchers need to develop the skills required to communicate directly and effectively with the public. Some are just not inclined to it, and that’s fine. However, all researchers need to learn how to pick their science communication partners (the aforesaid intermediaries). The key question is not whether you should interact with the public (because you should, period) but rather whom should you work with to help you.
Over the years, I have learned the hard way that deciding whom to work with on science communication is not easy. There are basically two kinds of intermediaries in SciComm. There are those who want to hear from you what the story is, and then work with you to communicate that story clearly and effectively to the public, while helping the public convey their feedback and questions to you. Then there are those who already know what story they want to tell, and who want to collect your words and your graphs to tell the story they want to tell, and then post and abandon it. Without some experience, they can be difficult to tell apart.
This advice may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Read or listen to their work before you decide to work with them. Ask to read or hear drafts of the stories you are working on together before they are released. If it doesn’t feel you are working on the story together, you probably aren’t. If they won’t provide these things, don’t work with them. The ones you want to work with won’t have a problem with this. Those who have a problem with it, you don’t want to work with.
Communicating our research broadly and clearly is a crucial part of our mission. The tools for doing so on a large scale are available like never before. Even better, there are a whole bunch of talented people out there with the right skills, and who are eager to help us do it. They might even teach us a thing or two as we communicate our science to them. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.