domingo, 5 de mayo de 2013

The Importance of Communication; Making Science Accessible

ORIGINAL: Oxbridge Biotech
By Sarah Smith View author bio 
Monday, 29th April 2013

Sarah Smith
We are living in a time of exciting discoveries, huge technological advancement, and great scientific innovation, but only now is the scientific community finally realising that communication is the key to managing change in public opinion and understanding of research. In the past, these advances have sparked some scary news stories when scientists have had little input in writing about their research. The classic mistakes come from misinterpreting statistics – here is an example Ben Goldacre uses in his book Bad Science (2008)(1):

Let’s say the risk of having a heart attack in your 50s is 50 % higher if you have high cholesterol: that sounds pretty bad. Let’s say the extra risk of having a heart attack if you have high cholesterol is only 2 %. That sounds OK to me. But they’re both talking about the same (hypothetical) figures. Out of a hundred men in their 50s with normal cholesterol, four will be expected to have a heart attack; whereas out of 100 men with high cholesterol, six will be expected to have a heart attack. That’s two extra heart attacks. Those are natural frequencies. Easy.


We, as scientists, complain when journalists ‘get it wrong’ but often hesitate to talk to the press or write our own blogs. However times are changing; communicating scientific research is not the sole responsibility of celebrities like David Attenborough or Brian Cox, but is also the duty of those closely involved in primary research. The Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) based at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, is the epitome of this new scientific culture.

In February 2013 I spoke with Dr Will Grant, lecturer and researcher at CPAS, about the courses that they run and how he felt about this new era of engaging the public and policy-makers about science.

The focus of CPAS is communication, rather than the philosophy of science, which includes understanding the obstacles preventing the uptake of science by the general public. One of the biggest barriers in communicating science is language – a recent study conducted by Michigan State University, and presented at the  annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)meeting, suggests that just 28 per cent of Americans are science literate – this figure is lower in most of Europe. As scientists we have a whole arsenal of words with which to describe the precise mechanism we are interested in. For example, it is easy to forget that when we ‘transform’ bacteria with plasmid DNA we are describing a specific technique of heat-shocking the bacteria to increase the permeability of their membranes, thus facilitating the uptake of DNA. Whereas a lay audience may have no inkling for what the magical ‘transformation’ might be. As a PhD student, I’ve been told I should always have handy my ‘3 minute elevator pitch’ for when someone asks me what my research is about. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using subject-specific jargon and losing your questioner’s interest within the first minute. One way to practice this is to attempt the up-goer five challengetry to explain your research using only the 1000 most common words, which is harder than it sounds…

Dr Grant explains that there is one key difference between a basic science PhD thesis and one written at CPAS; the student must include a conclusions section that suggests ways to implement changes flagged up by their results, and what recommendations the findings led the student to make. One example he cites is of a current student, originally from Bangladesh, who is carrying out research into rice farming in his home country. The study uses typical social-science methods including questionnaires and interviews of over 400 farmers. From this he found that a particular species of rice gave the best yields, but that most farmers were not utilising it. Once the student has written up his thesis the information will be fed back to the Bangladeshi government and he will help advise them on how to educate the farmers about different rice breeds in the future. This, however, is just one example of a CPAS-style thesis and postgraduates at the institute bring a diverse range of interests with them. Previous theses include studying the effect of scientific terms on marketing anti-wrinkle creams, lay understandings of mental illness, and the potential of computer games for science education.

Figure 1: Exponential increase in the number of DNA base pairs (bp) that can be read during one run on a sequencing machine. Data from this paper(2), credit to Simon J Watson for graphic.
Dr Grant and I also discussed how the speed of technology development could hinder our explanation of science to the public. A prime example of a fast-moving technology is whole genome sequencing. It took over ten years to completely sequence the first human genome, and this was a mammoth effort by over 20 institutions across the globe. Another ten years on and a whole human genome can be sequenced in 24 hours (Figure 1). Fast developments in the field of genetics has fuelled plans to sequence the genomes of 100,000 NHS patients suffering from cancer and rare diseases, over the next 3-5 years. This proposal has taken genome sequencing from lab-bench jargon into colloquial language – ‘to sequence’ has already become a verb! The popularisation of scientific language is a positive step, but with this familiarity some people assume they understand the whole package. However, dogmatic terms like ‘junk DNA’ are being overturned every day and it’s difficult for the public to keep up. Genetic testing often results in the assignment of a ‘risk factor’ – you have a gene that increases your risk of heart disease by X. This means that science communicators will be essential in ensuring that the public understand not only what DNA sequencing is but what information it can and cannot tell them about their current or future health.

As well as undergraduate courses and full PhD programs, CPAS also runs a 1 year Masters Outreach course in collaboration with Questacon – an interactive science museum in Canberra founded by Professor Mike Gore, originally a physics teacher at ANU. The aim of the Masters program is to give students hands-on experience in designing interactive activities to enthuse the public about scientific issues, to develop their public speaking skills, and to grow their confidence as the ‘Science Circus’ tours around Australia for up to 3 months. However, if emigrating to Australia is a bit much for you, these types of courses are beginning to appear in other places including King’s College, London, where a BSc in Science Engagement & Communication is offered.

Although science is hurtling forward at an unstoppable pace, only now are scientists realising that the way we talk about our work and findings needs to keep up. Sadly, not every science major at ANU has to take lectures in science communications, but there are electives that they can choose to take. Dr Grant thinks this could be pushed for if more funding were available. Perhaps we need to think of these skills as being as important as teaching the ethics of scientific research – fundamental! Hopefully in the future a module in science communication will be a prerequisite for any science undergraduate, to ensure that we can help the public and policy-makers to keep up with our ever-changing understanding of the world.

References
1. Goldacre, B. 2008. Bad Science. HarperCollins, London. ISBN – 978-0-00-728487-0
2. Batley, J., and D. Edwards. 2009. Genome sequence data: management, storage, and visualization. Biotechniques 46:333-4.

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