By Solène Sautory and Soham Saha
During a recent discussion among neuroscientists, of academic levels ranging from master’s students to professors, the concern of how the public perceived science came up. With recent events concerning the lack of science outreach, a few months ago, we passionately marched for science and the dissemination of scientific knowledge among people from many walks of life, “Les Marches pour les sciences”. In Paris, many scientists marched on to show solidarity to scientific enquiry and research. However, we kept pondering about a question that was on everyone’s minds. Opinions regarding this aspect seem divided among scientists and nonscientists. How do people outside of the scientific community perceive the field of science, the careers involved, and the value of research in our current society? All of us quickly agreed that science was often misunderstood; either an obscure area that non-scientists either looked up to in awe – “It’s amazing, I’m not smart enough to go into it!”, or simply dismissed – “I don’t get it and I don’t really care”. As contrasting as both reactions seem to be, a common feature may tie them together – despite the plethora of scientific information available, the public struggles to truly grasp the essence of science. Are they to be blamed? Seizing the essence of science would require us to be aware, to understand, to be interested and to be curious of the developments in the scientific field.
A look at the causality of why science is often misunderstood among society and is easily associated with negative emotions about animal experimentation, model organisms and technology transfer will point to the lack of a coherent voice among scientists. Not only are professional scientists often poorly trained in communications and transfer of ideas, they are sometimes cut off from the society that cares to be informed. The reasons are manifold, which we personally encounter every day. As some of us young scientists were pondering over coffee about the possible reasons for this disconnect, some key points emerged:
- Scientists are caught in a precarious ‘publish or perish’ situation. This leads to a rat race to generate data and publish in ‘high impact’ journals; The good thing is that more researchers are beginning to realize the perils of this approach. There is a need to move away from unhealthy competition and embrace a more collaborative approach.
- Scientific literature is most prominently written by scientists to scientists and for scientists, and often filled with jargon. Many scientists publish articles about their research in highly technical journals. Often, these articles are stuck behind a paywall and not freely available to the public. Even if someone had access, the jargon usually makes the articles hard to understand, even for fellow scientists. Individuals outside of the field potentially interested in current research face this initial barrier while trying to learn more about the subject. Some scientists write popular science books, but they are time consuming and expensive; therefore, it is difficult for many, if not most individuals to buy and read them.
- Science is communicated to the public mainly by science-based magazines or occasional science articles as daily news. Most of the popular magazines cover multiple topics and many are guilty of cherry-picking sensational news most likely to grab the attention of the public. Hence, quite often what we hear about the brain are sensationalized stories like “drinking a glass of wine everyday can reduce the probability of developing Alzheimer’s disease”. This aspect of science journalism may seem great on the surface, but it fails to reflect the true nature of the scientific field.
- Science-based magazines aim to transfer scientific knowledge to the public, but these articles are often not published by scientists themselves. While such articles cover a variety of topics, they are typically written by journalists, and often there is a gap or a lack of scientific communication by scientists directly aimed at the public. This lack of participation by scientists in the process of scientific communication fuels a cloud of obscurity, a smokescreen sieging over science. Scientific reports and articles written by scientists to communicate their research to the public do exist; however, these are so few that it doesn’t segregate signal from noise effectively. It resembles a sparse neural network that we both work in, with the characteristic response being regulated more by plasticity of the system rather than the bulk of connections.
- The task of presenting relevant information regarding the current understandings of the various fields in the scientific domain appears to be a daunting one, and it is. However, if scientists can truly seize the opportunity to not just be passionate seekers of truth, but also be active advocates of it, it will revolutionize science outreach and the way science is perceived by society.
Bringing science to the forefront would be a major step if we want our world, society to stay united and cooperative. Modern science is a highly collaborative endeavor – gone are the days of a single scientist working in isolation in his/her quiet laboratory and making groundbreaking discoveries all by themselves. It needs people from different backgrounds to bring their unique perspectives and work together to accomplish great things.
So, as neuroscientists of the next generation, we believe that science has reached a stage where we should put our best foot forward and march to break down barriers to the dissemination of scientific knowledge, and share our latest research and diverse views, more openly and freely. In a world where policy seems to be driven by populism, ultranationalism, and xenophobia, free and open communication of science is important, now more than ever.