San Diego, Ca
As a graduate student, and an early career scientist, I get a lot of questions about the things I do, the places my work takes me, and the importance of science. Over the last several years I’ve been asked questions like: “So you’re a marine biologist, do you just play with dolphins all day?”, “Why is the ocean so cold?”, “Is it safe to eat fish after Fukushima?”, “Why should I care about algae? They’re not even interesting!” and most alarmingly, “Is climate change real?”.
While all of these questions are answerable (No; because of heat transfer; yes Fukushima likely didn’t affect fisheries in the Eastern Pacific, but also no, it depends on the species; algae are always interesting! Oh let me count the ways; YES, "unequivocally" yes), the bigger issue is that the answers to these questions (and many more) are not shared with the general public in a clear and understandable way. Many aspects/functions/species/trophic interactions/ecosystem dynamics in the ocean are still mysterious to marine scientists, but that doesn’t mean that the answers we already have need to remain a mystery to non-science folks.
The relatively new field of “science communication” aims to bring the work that scientists do to the general public (and policy makers). When done effectively, the mysterious become clear, the inapproachable becomes tangible. You’ve probably seen nature documentaries, or heard about recent works in newsbreaks. That’s all a great start, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Recently, my lab mate, PhD candidate Melissa Ward, hosted a SciComm seminar/workshop at the Coastal and Marine Institute in San Diego. I’m still digesting all of the great resources Mel shared with us. But, I think, the biggest messages from the meeting is that the scientific community and the general public need to actively breakdown the barriers that keep our “worlds” separated. What I mean by that is, as I’ve said before, even though we’re over worked and underpaid, scientists need to work on coming down from their “ivory towers” as much as non-scientists need to feel like we are approachable members of society.
Not all of us in the scientific community want to be active communicators, and that’s OK. However, you never know when you’ll find yourself in a position to communicate the work done in your field, or even the details of your research to a member of the general public. Have you ever been sitting on an airplane, or standing in an elevator, when someone asks you, “So, what do you do?”. You’ve got a very limited amount of time to relate your passions and pitfalls, and the nuances of your work before the other person either gets lost or looses interest, or both!
So, I encourage all of you actively working in academia and in research, to take some time to think about your field, and the significance of your work. Even if you’re not actively engaging in SciComm, chances are you’ll have to relate your work in “layman’s” terms at least once during your career. Challenge yourself to write about your work using the 1,000 most common words in the English language! And, to those of you who aren’t actively pursuing research or academia, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I can’t speak for all scientists, but most of the folks I know love to talk about the ocean, their research and the natural world with anyone who cares to ask.
Be sure to check back in soon, there are some pretty exciting projects in the works right now!
Baron von Urchin
Pike Spector is currently a Research Operations Specialist with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary