Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Copy popular miscellanies to get science into homes

It's a bit meta. Danny Kingsley is the Manager of Scholarly Communication and ePublishing at ANU and a sessional lecturer with the Centre for the Pulic Awareness of Science at ANU. Her article on The Conversation website - it's a non-profit vehicle that is designed to bring academic work direct to the public, and employs journalists - talks about the need for scientists to speak plainly.

The article is dated 9 November 2011 but I just heard about it on Twitter, where it sparked a bit of discussion. Those who commented felt that scientists should be doing more to make their work readily available to the public. That's natural. We all want to be informed, and many believe that the mainstream media has dropped the ball a bit in the communication game. They may regret the amount of disinformation circulating regardless of the actual research, and the climate change debate is a classic example of this phenomenon. Raising doubts about complex issues is what conservatives have done so well for generations. The way the mainstream press operates, these doubts are expressed and thereby gain currency. Momentum is lost. Policies fall by the wayside. Frustration results. The media cops the blame. Scientists grind their teeth and keep their heads down.

The article talks about the "duty" that scientists might have to bring their ideas and research results to the public. After all, most Australian research is publicly funded. But I think that most scientists are busy concentrating on publishing peer-reviewed papers. These papers are critical for them in terms of attracting funding, and universities rely on high publication rates for their rankings. So the major effort goes into them, and that's understandable.

Scientific papers are extraordinarily abstruse. Unfathomable, in fact. I did an article last year which took a bunch of published biochar research papers and tried to convey their contents in an accessible style. I basically relied on the introduction for each paper. The main components of these scientific papers are impenetrable for the layman. There's even a special breed of journalist, the science journalist, who does nothing other than interpret research for the public. Magazines such as Cosmos rely on these people for their content. But not that many people buy it. Instead, they buy publications that are less nerdy, more political, or heavier in terms of cultural content. Sure, we're talking high-end like The Monthly, but the popularity of these magazines shows that there is a market for intelligent and accessible material. However they contain little science.

It used not to be like this. Let's talk about the rise of the middle class for a moment. We need to go back to the beginning of the 18th Century, to the days of Daniel Defoe and the first King George. It was a time of discovery, both terrestrial and academic. So you've got Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe, which is part travel story and part political treatise. At the same time there were magazines such as The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. These miscellanies had everything, from advice about polite behaviour to information about the most recent scientific research, from literary criticism to political commentary. They brought the world into the private drawing room. And people loved them. Other publications followed, and the miscellany became as important to popular culture as social media is today. Serendipity, sharing, exchange, comment. All those things. Read the biography of a poet of the day and you'll find references to these magazines, and to the books of travel or science they reviewed.

There's nothing like that now. But science has become more and more complex and disciplines within it more and more specialised. As Kingsley says in her article:
My explanation to those students who are uninterested in communicating is that they shouldn’t expect to have much success in their careers.
Given the high specialisation of science, the chances that the promotion committee or grant application reviewers – or indeed any people making crucial decisions about careers or funding – will be in exactly the same speciality are extremely slim.
Decision makers are far more likely to look favourably on a description of work that is understandable than one they have to slog through.
Kingsley does note how more of the niche magazines that currently serve the market are demanding accessible digests of the longer pieces they routinely run. But this is not enough. Science and Nature, like Cosmos, are great magazines but they're not getting into peoples' living rooms like the 18th-Century miscellanies did. We need to get research-based stories into the magazines that people actually buy for education and entertainment. Average people, and not just the astronomy wonks who get those specialist publications at the newsstand.

No comments: