Duty to communicate?

“From the researchers that I have talked to so far, I feel that they are very competent people who have a reason to why they focus so hard on their studies. I think it is a waste to not communicate what they have found to the general public. It may take years and years to conduct a research and if it is “news-worthy”, it should definitely become front page news and be presented to the general public.”

This quote came from the final project of one of the students in the class I’m a teaching assistant for. The class, called Communicating Science, is a class I sincerely wish was around when I was an undergrad. It has two components: teaching students to communicate science to other scientists (through academic papers, conference presentations, etc.), and to the general public (through interviews, blogs, videos, etc.). For the second part, they do a major project where they take a recent paper from a UBC researcher and create a video, podcast, and supporting blog (my favourite one this year is about the North Atlantic Right Whale). At the end of the course, they write a big paper reflecting on what they’ve learned, and how it has personally changed their views and helped them warm to the concept of communicating. Which leads us back to the quote.

My agreement with the sentiments the student expressed recently caused a friend to call me “the most biased journalist” he knows. Putting aside that I don’t think he actually knows that many journalists personally, it’s a pretty strong thing to say (although not necessarily bad, as I’ll attempt to show). What did I do to prompt it? On this occasion, sleepiness (and therefore grouchiness) caused me to take my mantra of “you are the expert” a little too far.

From Pedagogy in Action: Library: Professional Communications Projects

You are the expert. It’s a little philosophy I’ve quite taken to, as I can see it applying to both science and journalism. Essentially, I believe that if you have seriously done the empirical work, you could, and should, express an informed opinion on it.

For journalism, this doesn’t mean if you called a few folks for a daily news story you’re an instant expert (which journalists are often said to be tasked with becoming, although I disagree), but when you have invested serious time and effort to get to the best possible version of the truth. Yes, journalism seeks truth just as science does, but is usually constrained by time. So, we aim for the best possible version of the truth. With more time and research, we can get closer to the truth.

I don’t think I’m getting ahead of myself by saying I have expertise now on the subject of unconventional natural gas extraction in BC, a certain proportion of which can be extended to other jurisdictions, although I’m constantly aware of the limitations there. But, I could enter serious debate in BC, and I believe I’ve earned the right to express my opinion on the matter.

In science, we already know the scientists are the experts. But, they’ve been trained to be objective at all times. It is my belief that if you have this extreme expertise, it is almost criminal to not express your opinion. At the base level, if opinions are uncomfortable, scientists should communicate their expertise. As the student says, these scientists are clearly passionate about what they do, and so “it is a waste to not communicate what they have found to the general public.

Now to the incident that caused me to take it too far. As a part of TerreWEB, a couple of weeks ago we took a field trip to Vancouver Island and visited a couple of ecology-related institutions to hear and discuss their strategies for communication. The first, the Forest Practices Board, a panel set up by government (but not under its thumb) to produce research and recommendations for related policy directions, was very excited to share and receive views with us. Although I took issue with them giving their press releases to relevant government departments before they are released to the public, in general I found them a deeply interesting bunch, who were trying to be innovative in communication in order to attract more attention to their operations.

The second was the Pacific Forestry Centre, a government branch. The first guy, well… I don’t think he knew who we were and why we were there. He told us what he did, which was mostly GIS data mapping to answer federal government questions, but didn’t think much of communication. Hadn’t seen any of this government muzzling of federal scientists and suspected a lot of it was hyped by the press. Wouldn’t be creating a Twitter account any time soon (smirked at the idea). Firmly believed that if he just gave the politicians and their staff his data, the right decisions would be made. It wasn’t his job to give his opinion.

This hit a grumpy tied nerve with me (to get to the island I had to wake up at 5 am. Normally I go to sleep around 3). To take no personal interest in the decisions that get made with the data you spend all your life creating, taking no responsibility for what your research creates, was outrageous to me.

I told him that. He told me you have to pick your battles. I told him he wasn’t picking any battles. One of the TerreWEB co-ordinators suggested we move on. I fumed in irritated whispers to the guy next to me, who tried his best to make the tirade end.

OK, so, I went a little off the rails at a perfect stranger. It’s just his implicit trust in government to care about the results of his research in the same way he does (or should?) is, to me, an outdated and almost irresponsible way to go about being a scientist.

I’m no massive conspiricist, but we all know governments do not always act on the advice of their scientists. You only have to look at the stubborn presence of homeopathy in the UK National Health Service to know that.

I know not every scientist is a natural communicator, nor do they want to be. But if you’re a scientist who thinks the important implications of your research are being ignored by the powers that be, what can you do? Go to the other power: the people.



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