By Ruth Francis
Researchers spend a great deal of time communicating with their scientific peers, writing papers, giving lectures, preparing grant proposals and teaching. Yet, relatively few embrace communicating with people outside academia. With many other priorities, what benefits are there in stepping outside the scientific circuit and reaching out to the public?
So much research is published every day that it can be difficult for scientists to stay on top of the literature in their field, let alone in those around it. News articles, social media and science blogs provide multiple avenues to catch the attention of potential collaborators, investors and the science-hungry public. Not every research finding is going to set the front pages alight, but even little bits of media coverage can lead to a substantial increase in downloads of the original paper.
In some parts of the world, there is a growing mistrust of science, dislike of experts and accusations of fake news. It can seem intimidating to talk to journalists or the public, but in times like these, it is even more important to communicate scientifically sound research. In doing so, you may help leaders craft more informed policies, or inspire the next generation of scientists. If researchers don’t make this effort, they can have no say in how their work is used in the real world.
Studies have shown that speaking to different audiences and popular science writing helps researchers step back and think about what they do in different ways. In considering what is important in an explanation and how to say it succinctly, they can gain new understandings of their own work. This also improves grant proposals and scientific writing. Effective communications skills are becoming an accepted part of the scientific skillset, even encouraged by funding bodies. So whether it’s expanding your social media outreach or trying your hand at writing a popular article on your work, the question should be not why, but when?
In next month’s column, we’ll share some practical tips on communicating with lay audiences.
Ruth Francis is a communications expert with over 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.