Making science accessible: getting the message across or dumbing down?

A passion for science
A few weeks ago, I watched Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society in the UK present the 2012 Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC. Titled The New Enlightenment, it was a brilliant analysis of why science is relevant to and important for society. He argued the need for quality science based on empiricism, and not a science burdened by preconceived ideas or politics. And Sir Paul’s passion for science shone through.

A copy of the lecture is available on the Royal Society’s website.

For a month or two – ever since I began this blog – I’ve been bouncing a few ideas around in my head about science communication, one of the things I’m quite passionate about. And that’s because for nine years at IRRI I was Director for Program Planning and Communications. Among my responsibilities was ‘getting the message out’, ensuring that the institute’s great science was understood by the various agencies around the world that provided financial support. Since most of the funding is ultimately provided by the taxpayer in each country, it’s vitally important that a science organization like IRRI is able to articulate clearly – and in language that is easily understood – why the mission of the institute is important and how science can help bring about a change to people’s lives. Now IRRI has an important research mandate, because the crop it focuses on feeds half the world’s population several times a day. So it’s important to make sure that those funding IRRI buy into the research, and in turn are able in simple terms able to account to their constituencies as well.

Scientists are human after all
In putting some ideas together for this post, I came across this interview with the late Dr Jacob Bronowski, an eminent mathematician, who became an acclaimed television presenter responsible for the outstanding series The Ascent of Man, first broadcast in 1973. Bronowski talks about the need for scientists to come down from their ivory towers and show the relevance of science to society (my paraphrase).


Making science accessible – choosing the right language
Then my friend Luigi Guarino at the Global Crop Diversity Trust (who maintains a blog about agrobiodiversity in the main, but which is a fountain of very useful information) posted a link to an article by Dr Anne Osterrieder from Oxford Brookes University about how researchers and academics should make their work more accessible to the public by using a variety of media approaches available to them. Then a former colleague at IRRI sent me a link to a short article by Adam Ruben (who must have just graduated with his PhD) published recently in Science [1]. Ruben discusses the problems we often have as scientists – that we are ‘taught’ to write like scientists, and that very language places a barrier between us (the science community) and the general reader of science (let’s hark back to what Bronowski said at the end of the interview).

Highlighting rice science
So, in my communications role at IRRI – and working very closely with my colleague and head of Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel (aka Chuck Norris) – I set about revamping the approach to the institute’s Annual Report, as well as PR materials for the annual meetings of the CGIAR where donors and centers (and other interested parties) would come together to review and plan the agenda and financial support for the 15 centers. IRRI had been producing three types of reports: a Program Report full of data and figures, that took about a year to compile and publish, but which had been the mainstay of reports since the institute was founded in 1960; a report from the Director General to the Board of Trustees; and lastly, and a new approach in the 1990s, a type of corporate report. In the 1999 version of this last report we published, much to the ‘horror’ of quite a few staff, a brief biography of the staff mentioned in each story – to bring a human element, and let the reader understand just what had attracted many scientists to up-sticks and, for some, move half way across the world to work on rice.

Two things became apparent very quickly. For the annual reports it was important to write them in language that did not confuse the non-technical reader, and if jargon had to be used, then it must be explained in a meaningful way [2]. For PR materials, the messages must be simple, direct, brief, and supported by strong visuals. For all research proposals or technical reports sent to donors we ensured that a science editor (Bill Hardy) always reviewed every document to remove ambiguity and to improve clarity.

And we used professional science writers, when and where appropriate. I think we were also very fortunate a very talented support team in Gene’s shop who were open to new ideas and approaches, and quickly turned what at first seemed to be crazy ideas into stunning science communications products.

It seemed to me that we were trying to publish too many different reports – ostensibly aimed at different audiences – and that we ought to try and consolidate these into a single publication. For many reasons (cost, shipping, other publication avenues) we dropped the Program Report – much to the chagrin of some scientists who felt that IRRI should continue to publish this report, whatever, and that it provided an opportunity to publish research that might not be published elsewhere. That was not what the Program Report was for, in my opinion.  We also decided to use, for about five years or so, only black and white images, since the costs of full colour reproduction were becoming very expensive (click here to see one such example, the report for 2006-2007).

For the 2007 report we went further – producing the report only on DVD, but which also published on the IRRI web site. That provided the opportunity of returning to full color, and also including short videos, often of a staff member talking about and the significance of their research. We did the same for the 2008 report, but after I retired in 2010, the 2009 report was a hybrid: DVD plus a short booklet. And in all these reports, we provided stories focusing on an area of rice science for development, and its outcomes, rather than individual pieces of science as previously reported in the Program Reports.

I think the reports were successful (they received some prestigious awards from the US-based Association for Communication Excellence), and were well received by the donors, since they were able to lift stories (relevant to their financial support), because they were written for easy reading and understanding.

Not everyone was happy. Did our research partners in the different national research institutes, for example, have access to computers or the Internet (notwithstanding that both had become much more commonplace by then, and we were laying some publishing foundations for the future)? But a bigger concern, especially over the use of video, and the overall format of the reports, were we somehow making less of their science. Were we, in fact, dumbing down their science? Personally I do not think so. For a research institute like IRRI, there are several constituencies who must be catered for. But the scientific credibility and credentials of  any science organization must be constantly tested. And that’s achieved through publication in peer-review journals (whatever the shortcomings of this system). Scientific publication is often seen as elitist among the research for development community. I couldn’t disagree more. It is an integral and essential part of research for the reasons I just gave.

We have to use all approaches to get over the importance – and excitement – of science, what it has achieved (in terms of affecting people’s lives), and where the next challenges lie, and how people can connect with science.

PR – or is it spin?
I firmly believe that the combination of short, to-the-point messages, combined with a strong visual is an excellent way to make science accessible. Here are some examples of what I mean. As a research institute working on rice, IRRI faces several development challenges. It’s important to show the link between research and development. Click on the image to see some other examples.

In another case I wanted to show the relevance of rice science to other crops, and how investment in rice would also impact positively on other cereals, for example. We knew about the similarity of the rice genome to those of other cereals like wheat, maize, and sorghum. In pioneering research at the John Innes Centre, Graham Moore and his colleagues [3] had shown how the genetic makeup of these crops was similar. In other words, finding a gene in once crop was a good indicator that a similar gene could be found in another – and it’s all based on a common ancestry. This is how the John Innes group presented their work in Current Biology.

And this is how we used the same concept to illustrate the relevance of rice science to discovery in other cereals at a CGIAR annual meeting in Nairobi in 2003.

When the late Mike Gale saw this poster, he was over the moon. He explained to me that he’d been invited to give a talk to a local Women’s Institute group in Norwich, and had been wondering how to explain his research on crop similarities. ‘This is just what I’m looking for’, he said, and asked if he could use it for his talk. It’s all about analogies. In the rice world we often talk about the amount of water needed to produce 1 kg of rice. If you’re interested, you’ll find an answer on page 28 in this issue of Rice Today. But whatever the actual amount, 500 liters or 4000, this is not easily comprehended when scaled up to a field. So, using an analogy might help – bottles of whisky, Olympic swimming pools, perhaps?

Social media
There’s no doubt that social media such as blogs or Facebook are being increasingly used to get the science messages across. Indeed this is the point made by Anne Osterrieder earlier in this post. In a research institute like IRRI this presents some interesting challenges. What are the roles and responsibilities of the individual versus the institute? I have known instances where two scientists hold very different perspectives – for whatever reasons – about a particular area of research and how to achieve outcomes. Should each be allowed to put out their messages into the ether, or do they have the responsibility to toe the institutional line which often reflects policy approved by the Board of Trustees. Academic freedom? A research institute like IRRI is not like a university of independent researchers, each doing his or her own thing. Differences should be ironed beyond the ‘glare’ of social media web sites. Research that leads to farmer recommendations needs to be clear and unequivocal.

I’ve also see instances where someone has kept a personal blog, but to read it you would think that it was an official one, such was the format and topics addressed. Again, what are the responsibilities of such employees. These issues will continue to challenge us as we adopt more and more the full potential of social media and other ‘non-traditional’ approaches.

But whatever route we choose, we must ensure that the public engages with science, sees its benefits and how science is conducted. Paul Nurse was clear on this. I was interested to find out, just a couple of days ago, that my alma mater The University of Birmingham, recently appointed Dr Alice Roberts (a young presenter of science TV programs, but also a accomplished scientist and medic in her own right) as its first Professor of Public Engagement in Science, much like the role, I assume, that Professor Richard Dawkins (of Selfish Gene fame) played at the University of Oxford. Getting the message out is certainly something that several institutions are now taking very seriously indeed.

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[1] Here’s an interesting related link, also in Science: Roberta Ness, 2007. Writing Science: The Story’s the Thing.
[2] When I worked at CIP in the 70s, there was one plant breeder who had trained in quantitative genetics. Now this discipline is all about how gene frequencies change, and researchers use algebra – some quite sophisticated – to show how frequencies change from generation to generation. And at each annual program review he would show slide after slide full of algebraic formula that most of the audience did not understand, but the concepts behind which could have been explained in plain English. This was a trick, often used by presenters, to maintain control and ‘demonstrate’ their scientific superiority (or perhaps I should say inferiority complex). In any case to a large part of the audience this geneticist’s research was utterly inaccessible.
[3] G Moore, KM Devos, Z Wang and MD Gale, 1995. Grasses, line up and form a circle. Current Biology 5: 737-739.

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