SfN President Carol Mason
SfN President Carol Mason

Neuroscience comes alive when we talk with one another about our work as we did recently at the 2013 SfN annual meeting. We find out what others are doing and share the triumphs and trials of our research. Every poster interaction, every chance encounter in the aisles and eateries brings new thoughts to light and new ways to approach the questions we raise, for students and senior scientists alike.

I believe scientific discourse with the public is equally important. Many of us find ourselves communicating what we do in very simple terms to friends, family, and colleagues in other areas of neuroscience. Even though it takes energy to do so, describing your work to others who don’t understand the jargon — from the person next to you on the plane to a broader lay audience — forces you to distill its essence. Even chatting with 5-year-olds, as my colleague Fiona Doetsch frequently does in her son’s class, “makes you stand back and see the big picture.” Scientists can help lay audiences appreciate what science is, from its great possibilities and beauty, to its inherent complexities and uncertainties.

Why Communicate with Non-Scientists?

Today it is even more critical to have dialogues with non-scientists who aren’t familiar with our world. Through engaging and educating the public about neuroscience research, we promote understanding, inspire curiosity, nurture respect for the field, and seed a future generation of scientists. Similarly, communications with legislators about our research gives them a window into why our work is important, and why continued funding is necessary.

As science budgets shrink and competition for research dollars increases, it is vital that our research proposals clearly communicate what we are doing and why it matters. Increasingly, both public and private funding dollars rely on our ability to talk about our science to non-scientists. Reviewers of grant applications to foundations may or may not have scientific backgrounds. As Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, writes in RockTalk (April 2013), “Thinking about the relevance of your work to the public should start as early as your NIH application phase…think more broadly, because even reviewers, their scientific background notwithstanding, will benefit from a clear statement of what you are doing and why it is important.” In NSF fellowship and grant applications, applicants are required to account for their public outreach efforts in teaching, writing, and speaking in the Broader Impacts section. Universities are increasingly asking their faculty to speak with donors about their research and its applications in the real world. As this trend continues, a number of graduate programs are considering requiring communication and public outreach training for those enrolled in PhD programs. It is apparent that scientists need to become strong communicators in order to access research revenue streams.

But the search for research funding is not the only reason to develop communications skills. As recipients of taxpayer funds, we have a responsibility to explain how our research helps the public. The NIH RePORTER website, for example, includes lay-friendly language about grant awards in its News and More section, and connects visitors to related information about research outcomes, patents, and publications. Private funders, also, need to be informed about the outcomes of science research they support when we thank them for their contributions.

David Eagleman, a 2012 SfN Science Educator Award winner, wrote a compelling article about why we should disseminate scientific knowledge (J. Neurosci. 33:12147, 2013). He challenges scientists as they engage in public communications to inspire critical thinking, debunk “fuzzy thinking,” and “stem the flow of bad information” and incorrectly interpreted data, even in reports by science writers and the media. By engaging in discussions of controversial issues, he writes, we help clarify what neuroscience can and cannot offer to make us smarter or cure autism. We can also explain not-so-controversial issues, such as President Obama’s BRAIN initiative, and highlight our efforts to understand how the normal brain is wired and functions, what can go wrong, and what that means for our research and the public good.

SfN Science Communications

Many of us already communicate about science during Brain Awareness Week events each year (in 2014, BAW is March 10–16). We meet with students and educators to bring neuroscience to the classroom, science fairs, and other venues, for students at all grade levels. But every day can be a “Brain Awareness Day.” Seasoned scientists can hold lectures and symposia for adults in community centers and with other lay groups, speak at senior centers, or write op-ed pieces. You can invite legislators at the local, state, and federal level to attend public events or invite them to your lab. Join in on Capitol Hill Day this year (March 26) to meet with your congressional representatives and their staff, a truly exciting and eye-opening experience for me last year. If each of us aims to participate in such events, we send messages to the public about why brain research is so vitally important.

Many neuroscientists believe that it is not their duty or in their skill set to act as science communicators. SfN can help. SfN recognizes that communications with the public are essential, and BrainFacts.org makes content available to the public that is vetted by an editorial board of neuroscientists to ensure accuracy and breadth of topics across the field. Use these resources in your outreach! Likewise, Neuroscience Core Concepts can be a resource for members to call on when addressing lay audiences, and many age appropriate materials for teaching are available on BrainFacts.org. The Global Membership Committee and the Government and Public Affairs Committee provide funding to support activities for public outreach and can help get in touch with congressmen and their staff. SfN offers a new Early Career Policy Fellows Program for neuroscience students, postdoctoral trainees, and early-career faculty who seek to become effective advocates for science, including training for Hill Day visits. This year, SfN will expand its efforts to provide tools and training to help members communicate with public audiences, using talking points developed by the Public Education and Communications Committee.

Communications Outreach in 2014

I write this message at the turn of 2014, a great time to be making resolutions. I am excited that SfN will begin launching opportunities for training members in science communications this year, and urge you to resolve to engage in more brain awareness every day. As David Eagelman wrote, we should strive to share with the public the “raw beauty of the scientific pursuit,” and its vagaries, like a conductor shares music. Whether you are communicating with your mother, a group at your community library, or your Congressman, make a resolution to reach out in new ways and you and society are sure to benefit. I look forward to having you join me in this effort.