Marching on After the March for Science

August 16, 2017

By: Joelle Thorpe, Ph.D., Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellow

The views expressed herein are those of Dr. Thorpe and are not necessarily shared by any organizations with which she is affiliated.

This past Earth Day (April 22), thousands of scientists and science supporters gathered in over 600 cities around the world to stand up for the use of science in policymaking. Inspired by the Women’s March in January, and spurred on by perceived threats to various fields of science, people took to the streets to get their message out: science matters and should not be ignored. Whether this message will be heard and acted upon remains to be seen, but progress will likely require more than marches. So, how do we use the momentum from the March for Science to continue encouraging the use of scientific evidence by decision makers and ensure that support for science is maintained? It comes down to increasing public engagement: a society that recognizes good science and its importance is one that won’t take it for granted and will stand up for science when it needs defending. There are several ways to empower the public to be champions of science; one thing they all have in common is communication1.

To scientists: talk about your work!

In my experience, many scientists love to get together and talk about their work with other scientists. Summer is an exciting time, with conferences scheduled that bring scientists together to present their latest findings. Each day of these yearly retreats cutting-edge science is shared and new collaborations are set up for future studies, leading to an almost electric atmosphere. 

If more scientists talked with the public about their work with even a fraction of the enthusiasm they have for communicating with peers at conferences, this would certainly promote public engagement in science. Many faculty and trainees already engage the public by talking about their work outside the ivory tower. There is hope that we might start to see even more scientists writing and talking about their work with the public post-march; as stated in The Guardian, the March for Science “is spawning a new generation of scientists who see public engagement as a responsibility”. 

Engaging the public (whose tax dollars may be funding all that science) can go a long way in instilling an appreciation for science and how it can impact everyday life. Not to mention the fact that public engagement could help change the stuffy stereotype of scientists so the public sees them for what they really are: relatable and passionate people who care deeply about improving quality of life and figuring out how our world works.

On top of the career demands experienced by today’s scientists, finding time to communicate science may be challenging. Academics have demanding workloads and schedules, and they may even suffer a career penalty for participating in science communication. But public engagement by scientists doesn’t necessarily mean putting on a show after every manuscript publication; it can be something as simple as a professor talking about her day with family and friends or sharing her work with local schools and public-interest groups. 

Little by little, as scientists talk with more people about what they actually do in the ivory tower, we may come to see a greater awareness of science in society. But the responsibility of public engagement does not fall solely on the shoulders of scientists.

To scientifically literate citizens: talk about science!

Those of us who trained in science, regardless of whether or not we are still in the lab or field, also have a responsibility to participate in science outreach. There are many great Canadian examples of scientifically literate people with careers in science communication and advocacy, like David Suzuki and Jay Ingram. While not everyone is destined to be a television star, and scicomm as a career isn’t for all of us, there are other ways we can use our scientific literacy to increase science awareness. These include things like writing blog posts on the latest science that interests you or sharing news, videos, and posts by other science communicators and scicomm platforms like Science Borealis on your personal social media accounts. Small everyday actions like these can contribute to getting a little more science out to our personal networks, a starting point and potential catalyst for science reaching the general public.

By emphasizing how science impacts every one of us, and by sharing our enthusiasm for cutting-edge scientific discoveries, scientists and scientifically literate citizens can increase public awareness of science. These efforts also serve to invite non-scientists into the world of science and remove the air of exclusion and elitism that some may perceive about the field. It’s hard not to care about something when someone wants to share it with you and when it directly impacts your life! Furthermore, when more scientists and scientifically literate citizens talk honestly about science with the public and empower individuals to be able to distinguish good science from nonsense, these actions may also help to hamper the rise and influence of pseudoscience.

An added benefit of honest science communication: protection from pseudoscience

While there are many esteemed scientists and science communicators working to share science widely, they are up against many others sharing misinformation cloaked as science—otherwise known as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience can come in many different forms. For instance, it can be some practice that purports to improve health but has no scientific evidence to support its claims and can lead to tragic circumstances. Pseudoscience can also be the incorrect use of bad or discredited science to legitimize a false claim, which can also have serious consequences

An insidious side effect of pseudoscience is that it can act to seed distrust in good science and scientists. In an age of "alternative facts" and access to vast amounts of information, how do we ensure that what we are seeing and reading is legitimate? Some, like Timothy Caulfield, have taken on the fight against pseudoscience by talking and writing about its existence and what can be done to stop it. I believe that the onus is on all of us to learn how to judge the veracity of what we are seeing and reading; those of us who are scientifically trained have the added charge of sharing these skills with citizens outside the scientific realm.

Critical thinking skills and even the most basic understanding of science can do wonders against the rising popularity of pseudoscience. Moreover, an informed public will, I hope, ask a scientist when in doubt about something they have read or watched. Reducing the impact of pseudoscience may have the dual effect of decreasing its occurrence and improving attitudes toward science.

I may be naïve, but I believe that we can prevent the need for future marches in the name of science in part by increasing communication about and awareness of good science. If we all contribute in some way to increasing the awareness of how much science can and does do for society, perhaps this will lead to greater presence of science in policymaking and decreased cuts to science funding. Of course, improving science for policy and policy for science is a complicated issue with many facets, but I think that each and every one of us—scientists, science communicators, and non-scientists alike—can start the ball rolling now just by talking, writing, and sharing.


1For some informative reading on science communication, check out these special issues of PNAS: The Science of Science Communication and The Science of Science Communication II

Joelle Thorpe spent many years studying many things, including hormones, parental behaviour, stress, and reproduction in furry critters. She recently stepped away from the lab bench to enter the exciting world of science policy. When she's not busy thinking (and sometimes writing) about how science and policy intersect, Joelle can be found with her nose in a good book. Connect with her on Twitter: @JoelleThorpe.

Filed Under: Science Communication Science Policy

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