Controversy

Time to ’embed’ communication into scientific training

Aalborg University

Aalborg University in Denmark has ’embedded’ communication skills into its undergraduate science and engineering programmes [Credit: Wikipedia]

There is wide acceptance in Ireland and everywhere that ‘communication’ skills are a crucial pre-requisite for a scientist to have a successful career.

For example, a recent survey conducted on academics across three universities in Ireland – DCU, NUIM and RCSI – found 78.7 per cent ‘agreed strongly’ that communication skills are an essential part of scientific training at 3rd level.

However, despite this finding, when it comes to the implementation of science communication initiatives here it’s s a case of too little, far too late.

There used to be no communication training for scientists whatsoever. These days things have improved, slightly. There are now a small number of taught modules for PhD candidates within the structured PhD programme.

The problem

I have taught some of these PhD modules, so I declare that interest. However, the experience has left me strongly believing that PhD stage is far too late. For real change to happen, it has to be implemented far earlier, and in a more radical way.

Many of the PhD students I have come across are often too focused on their research, and its minute details, to care about communication and there is little encouragement from their supervisors.

The way science is structured means that supervisors want the PhD candidates working tirelessly in the lab, and anything that is a distraction from that is resisted – actively or passively.

Science communication fits that category.

At undergraduate level in Ireland, in science and engineering, there is no science communication training at all, yet this is where it needs to begin.

The communication problem we have in science begins on the first day the science or engineering undergrad sits down and listens to their first lecture.

The undergrad begins to build new knowledge and this includes learning the language of science, or more precisely, the languages of science.

As they learn the languages of science, they delve ever deeper into the subject matter, and they move further away from what is – plain English.

By the time, students have completed a four year degree they are routinely using words and terms that are opaque to the average person.

It is seen as something of a scientific badge of honour to be able to understand the ‘jargon’ of Geology, or Biology, or subsets upon subsets of such areas.

The big picture is lost; the ability to see where a research area came from historically, where it fits in with the modern world, and where it’s going.

The drive is for new knowledge, more detailed, more precise, often more remote from the ‘man in the street’ and to publish such new knowledge.

To try and train PhD candidates to communicate science to a general audience, thus, goes against everything they have been taught up to then.

Teaching science communication to PhDs is akin to a struggle to get them to ‘unlearn’ how they communicate science, and to start again, with a completely new perspective. Difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Far better to start earlier.

Taxpayer

The real driving force for change here in Ireland is the funding agencies, such as Science Foundation Ireland, who demand that outreach be done.

In return for receiving funding from the Irish taxpayer the scientist today MUST describe his research in terms everyone that pays tax in Ireland can understand. Fair is fair – after all the taxpayer is footing the bill.

However, this relatively new (since around 2000) landscape in Ireland is uncomfortable for many scientists, as simply they don’t like to communicate, and if they do, they believe their work is devalued.

Scientists often complain that science journalists ‘dumb down’ research to make it understandable to the public or try to ‘sensationalise it’.

These are often the same scientists that can’t be bothered to try explain their work in a way that can make it accessible to a wide audience.

The problem for these ‘old school’ scientists in Ireland and elsewhere is that government funding bodies continue to insist that they explain and talk to the public. No communication = no further funding. End of.

Solution

So, for lots of reasons, scientists need to be better able to communicate their science to a wider public, the question is how best to do that?

Given that – as I wrote earlier – the problem begins on the first day of university, then the solution has to start also on that very first day.

The whole system has to change. That is probably why nothing has really happened up to now. The solution demands a radical change at 3rd level.

Science communication cannot be done as an afterthought at post graduate level. No. The way we teach science must change. Science communication must be embedded in curriculum. It must be part of the way subjects are taught.

The ability to explain science, and to understand where it fits in to the broader picture, must be a central part of the actual teaching and learning of science itself. It might sound like common sense, but in science, this will be seen as revolutionary talk in some quarters.

So, for example, the learning of the principles of Genetics must go hand in hand with an ability to explain the science to a group of non-scientists.

This means students must truly understand the science, before they move on to the next level, and how better to test that than to get them to describe.

These communication skills can be part and part of group work, and group work is also an essential part of how science is done.

In short, the scientific leadership in Ireland must stop seeing communication as separate from science. It must become part of scientific training from day one.

Undergraduates must be encouraged to think, how would I communicate this concept to other people? This can be done in many imaginative ways. Let’s talk about it.

It’s time now to embed communication into the training of scientists. There are working models out there if we care to look – in places like Aalborg University in Denmark. It’s time for action.

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