There’s an old joke that people go into science so that they can write papers and not talk to anyone.
But what’s the point in doing science, if you can’t talk about it?
Teaching is the best way of learning
First of all, if you can’t explain your research to a ten-year-old, then you don’t properly understand it yourself. No jargon, no convoluted analogies, no references, and no bleedin’ data. If I can’t find a way to present what I’m working on in simple terms, I go back to the drawing board to figure it out for myself.
Inspiring the next generation
Secondly, you need to SHOW kids that science is cool. Today I spoke to 300 young women about my research on climate change in Antarctica. Showing them videos of the environment we work in and communicating my passion was important to get them to care about the science I was talking about, and it paid off – judging by the open mouths and wide eyes, they were properly engaged. Good thing too, because if, as a scientific community, we don’t get young people excited, then we won’t have much hope for the future.
Science is for everyone
Most importantly, science affects all of us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my field: climate change affects everyone, so everyone should have access to information about it.
However, not everyone can ‘do’ science. Just because you’re the one doing the research, doesn’t mean you own that knowledge; far from it. Some people are privileged enough to be able to go to university for almost a decade, others aren’t. Just because I’m lucky enough to be doing a PhD doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else, it just means I got offered the right opportunities.
Besides, environmental science is almost always publicly funded. That means scientists have a moral (and actual) duty to report what they find in a way that everyone can understand. Without clear communication, the science that so desperately needs to inform policy can easily get lost in translation. If we’re explaining it badly, then can we be surprised that politicians get it twisted?
Crucially, climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable people most. United Nations data shows that women make up 80% of those displaced by climate change. These are exactly the people who are unlikely to have had the luxury of the many, many years of education necessary to decipher some of the impenetrable scientific literature.
Would you be able to understand a document written in another language? No? Then let’s not explain science in another language. There are already enough barriers in place to prevent people engaging with science, without adding more layers of inaccessibility by communicating badly.
Good communication breaks down barriers
When most people think “scientist” they probably still picture a white man. Although things are changing, white men still make up a disproportionate number of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) workforce. If we don’t encourage diversity in STEM, we will be missing out a huge number of potentially brilliant people who could help us tackle the world’s biggest problems. Communication is a big part of that: if we communicate clearly, we can inspire more people from all backgrounds to get involved.
A brave approach is needed
The world is changing, and as scientists, we can’t get left behind. Innovative ways of communicating science are crucial to solving big problems like climate change, so we can’t get stuck in our ivory towers with our fingers in our ears, writing papers for our mates and no-one else. It’s time to discard the comfortable jargon that we use to shield our uncertainty, take courage, and speak plainly. It might be hard, but talking in common language that everyone can understand is the only way we’ll make progress.