According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review, since 1989 the number of weekly newspapers featuring scientific developments has dropped from 95 to 19.
As periodicals devote fewer resources to science reporting, the responsibility of communicating new discoveries has fallen more and more to the scientists themselves. And because science communications is often considered separate from core science curriculum, this can lead to researchers feeling unprepared when called on to share their findings with the public.
A few weeks ago I was teaching presentation skills to rising seniors for the MIT Summer Research Program. I used Neil deGrasse Tyson as an example of my favorite science communicator. Probably the most recognizable astrophysicist of our age and host of the recent COSMOS series, Tyson is knowledgeable, approachable, passionate and quick to find relevance between what’s happening in the stars and what's happening here on earth. He has more than the technical knowledge required to excel in his field, he has the skills necessary to grab the public's attention and excite them about what's going on up in the sky. He and others like him are battling against a disturbing trend that his mentor Carl Sagan described as, “…a society [dependent] on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology…”
According to a 2014 survey by the National Science Foundation, a quarter of Americans were unaware that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. At the same time a 2009 Gallup poll found an increase in the number of people who believe the space program should be scrapped.
Simply put, we need more Tysons and Sagans.
How does one square a misshapen understanding of the universe with decreasing the means to improve that understanding?
Some might argue this kind of ignorance does no harm. Like eliminating penmanship from elementary school curriculum. Sad, but come on, is it really important? Humans didn’t know what revolved around what for thousands of years and we got along just fine.
Of course, they didn’t have GPS, satellites, airplanes, cell phones and weather stations – all things that depend on understanding that fact. If someone didn’t care about the order of the solar system and wasn’t able to effectively communicate it we would be lost and driving around in the rain like a caveman.
Space exploration is an excellent example of a missed opportunity to demonstrate scientific value. It has brought us such a ubiquitous wealth of riches we are hardly aware of the connection between landing on the moon and our daily comforts. Here’s a partial list of new or improved technologies that evolved out of the space program, from the (rare) science section of Business Insider.
There are simply too many items to mention, but here and here are other sites that expand on that list. NASA does spend some resources communicating its discoveries and technological progress to the public. That’s because although they could certainly do more, as the list above implies, they understand that being a good scientists doesn't just mean knowing things. It also requires the ability to communicate those things in a way that makes people care.
As a scientist, you may excel in your field; you know exactly what's important and so do all of your colleagues. But when you step into the public spotlight you have to do more. It’s up to you to sell the value of your work in a clear, concise and compelling manner. Ask yourself, what’s old, what’s new, and what’s cool? And then tell the world.