I was at Experimental Biology 2012 this past week. It’s the first time I’ve been to an EB meeting and also the first society meeting I’ve attended in a few years. I was excited and it was really great far: meeting new people, hearing about interesting and diverse science, and learning much about the non-research aspects of science.
Unexpectedly I learned some things about myself. Among them, I am an attention-seeking whore. Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.
The ASBMB Public Policy Advisory Committee sponsored an engaging panel discussion on effectively communicating science to non-scientists. Former NIGMS director and ASBMB president-elect Jeremy Berg moderated the panel consisting of: two science correspondents, Joe Palca from NPR and Cara Santa Maria from Huffington Post; Megan Palmer, Deputy Director of Practices at Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center; and Stanford biochemist, Nobel laureate, and science policy advocate Paul Berg.
After a few remarks from each panelist, the audience started asking questions, and there was extensive discussion, much of which was captured on Twitter and organized on Storify by editor of ASBMB Today, Angela Hopp. The session highlighted the importance of engaging with non-scientists of all types (public, industry, non-profits, government, etc.) to create relationships. One way or another, people are going to have conversations about science – what’s new, what it means, what policies are needed. If we’re not there to shape the conversation, other people will, and if scientists don’t get involved, it has the potential to be disastrous for science.
Paul Berg was involved in recombinant DNA policy discussions 40 years ago, and he has continued to advocate for responsible research in policy debates since. He pointed out that a major part of science advocacy requires scientists to give careful thought to concerns of non-scientists, which are often not obvious to us. He thought that if the public were represented by a media presence early on in policy debates, communication on controversial topics would be much more effective. In short, he provided some very insightful comments.
And then he said it.
As the science correspondents and audience were advocating for scientists to reach out to the media, to interact with the public, to use blogs to develop science communication skills, Paul Berg jumped in.
“I’m concerned about the line between self-promotion and responsiveness.”
I’m not a transcriptionist, so I didn’t get down word for word everything that was said – and if anyone who was there feels that I got something wrong, by all means, let me know. But here’s the gist of what I heard:
There’s a fine line between effective science communication and self-promotion. The idea of pitching stories to the media or writing blogs crosses that line. It’s too much like self-promotion, and self-promotion is “the antithesis to scientific culture”.
You could almost the collective jaw dropping in the room. Only an hour earlier Joe Palca had admonished us, “Stop dissing scientists are good at communicating to the public!” And now the one academic research scientist on the panel was saying, communicate but don’t take it too far.
In my experience, science blogging isn’t about self-promotion. I blog about the culture of science. My audience here is other scientists, and the goal is to promote discussion of (and hear other perspectives on) the system and the processes of training, funding, and other aspects of a life in science. Along the way, social media turned into a way to plug into a community of diverse peers and mentors. I think this community is improving my potential as a member of the scientific community at large. You are teaching me about grants, politics, advocacy, and much more. You point out when my perspectives are colored by privilege. You ward off the sense of isolation that can be overwhelming at times. I think I have helped others in similar ways. Among those who blog about research, I would hardly call their writing self-promotion. Most write about work in their field but rarely their own. Largely their goals are to encourage discourse in their fields or to educate non-experts and non-scientists, the exact things upon which the panel and past and present ASBMB presidents had been placing great emphasis and importance.
But, let us say for the sake of argument that social media is about self-promotion. Are we really going to pretend that there is no place for self-promotion in science? This notion that self-promotion flies in the face of scientific culture is ludicrous. We promote ourselves often and are encouraged to do so. In fact, we’re told that it’s a key component of being successful. Only it’s not usually called ‘self-promotion’. We call it networking, granstmanship, conferencing, advocacy, publishing, and outreach. We write papers and grants expounding how important, unique, and revolutionary our work is. We go into the community or approach Congress critters to talk about how essential our work – and public funding of it – is. We go to meetings like Experimental Biology 2012 to share our research with our peers, to let people know who we are, to connect with future collaborators and reviewers. In most, if not all, scientific career paths, success is wrapped up in people knowing who we are, in getting our name out and infiltrating the circles that can help us reach that next goal.
The message and goals of online and face-to-face interactions can be the same. It’s only the medium that’s different. Science communication and advocacy come down to building relationships, establishing experience/expertise, and ultimately showing up and engaging in thoughtful discourse. This is not just my humble opinion; these were the sentiments the sci-comm panelists shared, Paul Berg included.
Certainly we must be cognizant of unique nuances to engagement on social media platforms, e.g. speed, audience size and makeup, perpetuity of the digital record. There are occasional examples of scientists behaving badly online, for instance using a blog to push hir own research while viciously tearing apart that of competitors – because even on the internet, scientists remain human, sometimes acting rashly or inappropriately, just as happens in every day life. The activation barrier to posting something online is lower than showing up to a meeting and getting into a public argument with another scientist. But we don’t dismiss scientific meetings on account of bad behavior, nor should we dismiss other platforms solely for that reason.
Social media has great potential for science communication and advocacy. It’s easy for people to get involved, and in time, you can reach a much larger and more diverse audience than might ever be possible in your day-to-day interactions. Social media engagement isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. We should use whatever resources and outlets fit our individual style, but that doesn’t make other forms worthless. It’s about the message, not the medium, and we should leverage whatever medium enables us to reach our individual audiences.
Of course, by writing about this here, I am reaching an audience that has, to some degree, already embraced digital media as a mode of effective science communication. In other words, I’m preaching to the choir. Hopefully scientific professional societies will begin to use more traditional forms of communication to share the utility of social media platforms, rather than just allowing a few strong and privileged voices to tear them down.