Communicating Science in the Spotlight at AAAS Meeting
Reporters, scientists, academics, and nonprofit leaders shared their views about how science news is communicated in a new media landscape at several panels held during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, February 13–17.
The AAAS meeting is a highly valued forum for discussion of science and science communication strategies across physical and life sciences that encourages dialogue between scientists and science journalists. Many of the sessions focused on how scientists can take advantage of using social media and nontraditional communications platforms to effectively reach new audiences and engage readers who may not initially be interested in science.
Ensuring Science is Vetted
Innovative Vehicles for Vetted Information in a Wiki World was the topic of a panel organized by SfN that included conversation about BrainFacts.org, a public initiative of The Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and SfN. BrainFacts.org Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Spitzer, of the University of California, San Diego, set the stage for a discussion of the valuable role nonprofits and associations play in enhancing appreciation of science among the general public.
“There is a role for organizations such as the Society for Neuroscience to play in counteracting misinformation and providing accessible, accurate material,” said Spitzer. “We do that with BrainFacts.org by scientifically vetting every piece of content.”
Panelists from the Dana Foundation, Wellcome Trust, the American Institute of Physics, and SfN described the opportunities scientific organizations have to fill the void left by cutbacks in the number of science reporters at traditional media outlets. All have developed new ways to reach nonscience audiences through emerging communications platforms.
“Through new online outreach vehicles and campaigns, we increase our reach fifty-fold,” said Spitzer. “We make science accessible by presenting reliable information in an engaging way, and by doing so we create audiences of people around the globe who find neuroscience content fascinating. We are engaging the next generation of neuroscientists,” he said.
Sharing via New Communications Tools
Other AAAS panels examined the risks and rewards when scientists share their findings and research frustrations with the general public.
Information and stories posted on blogs, Twitter, and other social media websites such as Reddit, Facebook, and Tumblr improve understanding, enhance appreciation for science, and break the traditional mold for delivering news through peer-reviewed research in specialized journals that can come with hefty subscription prices. Scientists joined several award-winning journalists in a three-part Communicating Science seminar to discuss the issues scientists face when deciding whether to embrace the Internet as a communication tool.
“I want to see the cultural shift where the scientific community takes more responsibility for the science education of the nation,’’ said Kishore Hari, director of the Bay Area Science Festival at the University of California, San Francisco and founder of BayAreaScience.org, a Web portal for Bay Area science institutions and events.
This current dramatic shift includes soliciting comments in interactive ways, revealing a scientist’s personal side, and talking about the trials and tribulations of research, Hari said.
For example, physicist Stephen Hawking posted a paper about black holes on the arXiv preprint server in January based on his Skype discussion during a meeting at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. The unvetted paper drew the attention of scientists and fans alike. Hawking, one of the creators of the black hole theory, proposed a new idea about the boundaries of black holes. Nature magazine wrote about the article, quoting other physicists about Hawking’s radical theory. Conversations about his paper took off on social media.
“Hawking came to fame (again) when he did this,’’ said prize-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer. “He had some ideas. That was it. Scientists and journalists started jumping on the site.”
If Hawking had done this 10 years ago, Zimmer explained, the process would have been slow and without interaction with peers or the public. A journal would have printed the paper. Then a journalist would write about the article in print. Finally, others would voice their comments in other print publications.
Now stories like Hawking’s can go viral, seen by millions of people and creating buzz for days. “People really are fascinated by science and its most fundamental data,” Zimmer added.
But how, Zimmer asked, is it possible to ensure that unvetted science is accurate? That question is essential to how scientists interact through social media and other communications channels. It will be important for scientists to consider as they enter the new online media landscape, and may point to a role that scientific societies can play in the evolving dialogue between science and society.