In November I was lucky enough to get invited to a science communications weekend retreat in Whistler. It was organized by the Banff Science Communications Program alumni, and thus held promise of great discussions and great people. I was not disappointed, although exhausted after 12 hours of non-stop discussions and workshops.
Over the course of the 12 hours we brainstormed and workshopped themes like scientific tv-shows, pitching science stories to magazines, how to make a good science video, the possibilities of being a freelance science writer in Vancouver, communicating science to scientists, and how to prioritize your time to reach your own career goals. All topics that are extremely relevant and interesting to any science communicator or scientist in general. However, what prompted me to write a blog post from that weekend, was the very last topic of the night.
After dinner and quite a few beers (including a highly recommended drinking game involving a toast every time the term science communication was used), David Ng from University of British Columbia, urged us all to think about ways to engage an uninterested audience in science. At the end of the lengthy discussions, the overall points were to:
  1. Make the audience believe that science is cool
  2. Make the audience believe that science matters
  3. Teach science without the audience realizing it
  4. Get the audience to engage in science
Now, that all seems like great ideas, but how is it actually done? Starting with #1, how does someone make an audience believe that science is really cool? Outside of academia (and maybe even limited to Faculty of Science), the general view of a scientist is usually either 1) an evil scientist working with some 007-worthy bad guys to eradicate the world in clever ways, or 2) a geeky absent-minded semi-crazy man seeing the world through equations and microscopes. Or, even worse, there is no general view of a scientist whatsoever! In a 2008 survey (that I also wrote about here) where Americans were asked to name a scientist role model, the top answers were teacher and astronaut (not single people and usually not scientists). The three actual people that did get mentioned were Albert Einstein, Al Gore and Bill Gates. Two of whom are not scientists and the third one is dead. 
When asked about science role models, the three top names Americans could come up with were Albert Einstein (dead), Al Gore (not a scientist), and Bill Gates (not a scientist)
In fact, less than 4% of Americans could name a living scientist.
Thus not exactly a profession considered super cool and worthy of spending your time on. Clearly, science is not considered cool, so how do we change that in the name of science communication? A recent attempt by the European Commission to make science appear cool and appealing to girls (Science, it's a girl thing) failed miserably and was ridiculed and bashed from all sides (and rightfully so). Linking science to being girly girly was clearly not the answer. But then what is?
The - later withdrawn - EU campaign to make science cool amongst girls
The tv show The Big bang Theory has certainly made scientists popular but not very cool. The scientists on the show live up to every crazy scientist stereotype out there (inability to speak to women, social awkwardness, compulsive behavior, hobbies revolving around video games and comic books, to name a few). It does however relatively successfully teach the viewers about science without the audience realizing it (David Ng's 3rd point on how to engage an uninterested audience in science). The main problem is that most of the science on the show - though accurate - is too fast and complicated for the general viewer to understand. So while the show is somewhat successful in fulfilling David Ng's point #3, it does so at the expense of making science cool (point #1).   
The Big Bang Theory cast of four incredibly geeky scientists trying to live a "normal" life
Had I written this post a week ago, I would have been unable to come up with a name of a scientist who is cool in the eyes of the public (I can come up with many scientists that are cool according to me, but that's beside the point). However, last week I discovered that Henry Reich, who is the master behind the youtube videos MinutePhysics, actually has groupies.
Real groupies that want his autograph on their bras and follow him around.
He seems to have mastered the art of making science really cool! He is also making his audience believe that science matters by approaching it through everyday concepts (like walking in the rain), and teaching them while they think they are just watching a cartoon. Maybe linking science to art and video is one of the answers? 
As amazing a feat as it is to make physics that understandable and popular, I am still not convinced that MInutePhysics should be the scaffold for all science communication to come though (partly because I can't draw).

So I looked further for ways of engaging the public in science according to David Ng's points, and came across the popular facebook page "I Fucking love Science". It posts funny quotes, images and jokes about science in case you hadn't come across it. It actually manages to portray science in a cool and funny tone, often teaching the audience a thing or two about science, and making them believe that it might actually matter. Someone took the time to make a cool image or joke about it, and it has millions of likes on facebook, so maybe it matters...?
The last step of science communication to the uninterested audience is to get people to engage in science. This is probably the trickiest of all, given our busy lives and constant bombardment of things we should be tending to. Nancy Baron has written a book called "The Escape from the Ivory Tower" that addresses the issue of how to make your science matter. She states that the most effective science communication is the type that makes your audience want to take action for you. Maybe not because they understand every detail of your research, or because they think you are the coolest person on the planet. But because you make them care. 
So; be cool, be interesting, be educational, but above all, be engaging!
Anne Steino.


01/18/2013 12:33am

Nice article, Anne! I would argue that it is not enough to make your audience 'believe' science is cool, I think they would stick around much longer if you make them realize/experience it instead. That'd make them thirsty for more... Mind you, handing someone a pipette and asking them to load a western blot on the main square in my country's capital had a pretty great effect too: They wanted much more after such an introduction!

But seriously, WHO doesn't think science is cool and fun??? How about these pages:
WTF evolution?
The Null hypothesis - The journal of unlikely Science; phdcomics; scientific tattoos, and more is found here:

05/19/2014 1:00am

I've been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks


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    I am a biochemist, currently working for a start-up biotech company in Vancouver. After hours I write and edit science stories for a variety of magazines, newsletters and health authorities throughout Canada. In this blog I mainly write about the challenges and debates that permeate the research community within academia and in industry.
    As coordinator for the ScienceOnlineVancouver meetings, active member of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, and participant in the Banff Centre Science Communications program 2013, I am also deeply involved in the Canadian science communications community, and often blog about matters of #scicomm. 
    Opinions are my own.


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