7 Qualities of a Respectful SciComm Community

This was originally a guest blog I wrote for shareyoursci.com. They’re a great site for science communication resources, so you should go check them out!

The theme for the 2019 Science Talk Conference in Portland, Oregon, was ‘Community’, a fitting topic considering how quickly the field of science communication is growing and evolving.

Science communicators engage with both science and non-science communities, and must be adept at maneuvering between the two. But what about the SciComm community itself? How can we nurture a space where science communicators of all kinds can feel connected and supported in their efforts? The importance of building a strong SciComm community—one that welcomes diversity and practices inclusion—was the focus of much of Science Talk.

Many of this year’s presenters talked about the qualities that they feel define a strong community, and these same qualities were discussed in the workshop I led on the second day of the conference. I’ve distilled these qualities down to seven key components of a successful community, which just so happen to spell out the acronym R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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1. Representation

Keynote speaker Maryam Zaringhalam addressed the question of who speaks for science head on. “Representation is a big problem in SciComm,” she said, encompassed by sexism, racism, and elitism.

Most people immediately think of Bill Nye when they hear the term ‘science communication’. Many of us have cringed at being called “the Bill Nye of…(fill in the blank)” or “the female Bill Nye”, as if this one well-known (white, male) person sets the standard for what a science communicator looks like and acts like. Nothing against Bill Nye—he’s done a lot for SciComm—but its problematic that other types of SciComm identities and perspectives may be considered less valid or visible in comparison.

Representation is important because we all need to be able to see ourselves in our community, be able to relate to others, and feel confident in our individual identities.

2. Empathy

This is a huge one for me. I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our societal problems, from political polarization to the detrimental “war on science.”

While as science communicators our goal to responsibly present science by being transparent, and often objective, we must also recognize that we are all driven by personal values. If we can’t acknowledge and respect the values of those we are communicating with, we will likely fail to reach them or build lasting relationships. We need to be able to empathize with others, even if they hold different values than our own.

As many presenters at Science Talk mentioned, being a successful science communicator means being a good listener. Listening to your target community is a big step toward making meaningful connections. Indeed, if you can connect with that community based on some shared values or goals, they are much more likely to be receptive to new ideas. This extends to our own SciComm community too; we should be able to respect that we each have valid experiences and perspectives.

3. Support

We all want to feel supported. How do we create a community where we can effectively support each other? Susanna Harris, founder of The PhDepression website and social media platform, spoke to this in her talk about creating online communities. According to Susanna, a successful community is a place (virtual or otherwise) where you gain something by participating, but also feel responsible for the wellbeing for other people in the community. It’s a place where we lift each other up and feel mutually supported, where we can celebrate our differences while recognizing what binds us together.

4. Protection

I’m not talking about Godfather-style mafia protection, but a strong community should create a ‘safe space’ where its members can be themselves without being judged or harassed. For science communicators, having a strong community means that your peers have got your back when you are attacked by trolls or abusive voices.

Building a community where members feel protected involves creating rules and guidelines for that community that establish a foundation of respect and inclusion. Panelist Sarah Myhre emphasized the importance of creating safer institutions where women, ethnic minorities, LBGTQ+ individuals, and others are free from abuse and prejudice. Without safe communities and institutions to support us, she argued, how can we focus on being successful communicators, scientists, etc.?

5. Equality

In a similar vein, equality is critical to maintaining a community where members feel like they can contribute effectively without bias or prejudice. Many Science Talk participants spoke about their experiences as minorities being blocked by gatekeepers to media, journals, institutional leadership, or other avenues of power controlled by non-minorities.

The tide is slowly turning in some institutions where leadership and participation is diversifying—but we still have a long way to go. Creating a strong SciComm community will require conscious effort toward supporting equality, diversity, and inclusivity; and as Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan (founders of Girls Talk Math) mentioned in their presentation, this in turn will help diversify science more broadly.

6. Connection

A common thread among Science Talk presentations was the important role of storytelling in connecting with your audience. We all have personal stories, and sharing those stories helps us connect with others—whether they are part of “our” community or one we are reaching out to.

As one Science Talk audience member said to panelists, “I want to know your personal story, what got you here, what kept you going. I want you to go beyond reason, and into emotion.”

Hearing how others overcame obstacles (internal or external) to get where they are today helps inspire us and connect us to each other. Many presenters emphasized that a “successful” SciComm interaction means making a meaningful connection. This applies both within and between our communities.

7. Trust

Finally, any community must be built on mutual trust. We must be able to trust that we have each other’s best interests in mind, are willing to support each other, and that our communication is based on integrity. Just as we as individuals want to be considered as trustworthy sources of science information to our audiences, our community should reflect this same trustworthiness by upholding the values we feel are important for respectful scicomm.

Just A Little RESPECT

Feeling supported, connected, and heard are the things that lay the foundation for effective science communication (or effective anything). It was encouraging to hear such wide consensus among SciComm-ers of all kinds about the need for building a community based on mutual respect, where we can boost each other and in doing so boost ourselves and raise the bar for SciComm as a whole.

While the seven elements I outline above are relevant to any community, there are a few additional qualities identified at Science Talk that are particularly important for catalyzing our science communication community: namely, enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

The youngest presenter at Science Talk this year was Parin Shaik, a freshman in high school who participates in the Science & Us SciComm program led by and for high school students. She described how entering the world of SciComm helped her overcome her fears about studying science, and opened up a world where “Sailor Moon and photosynthesis can co-exist!” In other words, SciComm allowed her to integrate her love of art and entertainment with her interest in science. She found her enthusiasm.

“Make your enthusiasm for science contagious.” Encouraged Dianna Cowern, YouTube’s “Physics Girl”, who gave the final keynote address. Her talk galvanized participants into celebrating their curiosity and making it ‘go viral’.

I think this is one of the things that I love most about our growing SciComm community—our common enthusiasm for and curiosity about the world around us, and our passion for sharing what we learn with others. In the workshop I led, participants described their aspirations for a strong SciComm community. You can review the list of aspirations and measurable results we came up with, and even contribute your own, on this google doc. I hope that the ideas captured in this document provide a basis for ongoing conversations about the qualities we want our SciComm community to embody into the future.

I hope we can use the elements of RESPECT to create a space where science and scicomm welcomes everyone. As Maryam said in her keynote, “the greatest asset we have is our community.”

How Can We Overcome SciComm Misconceptions?

What makes someone a science communicator? A science degree? Journalism credentials? A lab coat and penchant for cheesy science humor?

How can we make room for diverse voices and backgrounds to participate in scicomm and feel a part of the scicomm community?

This community has grown exponentially over the last several years, helping reinforce the importance of good scicomm for engaging non-scientists, increasing interest and trust in science, and applying science to societal issues. However, with the rise in scicomm, a number of concerns have popped up (particularly by scientists) about who has a “right” to communicate science, how they should communicate it, and whether science communication is having a positive or negative impact on public perception of science.

In this vein, I’ll be convening a workshop at this year’s Science Talk in Portland, where I hope to encourage reflection on how we can create a supportive and inclusive community while promoting transparent, trustworthy approaches to science communication.

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Do you need to be a scientist to be a science communicator? Can you be a serious scientist if you spend a lot of time communicating? Believe it or not, these are still ongoing scicomm debates.

As a PhD trained scientist who transitioned to a full-time scicomm career several years ago, I still sometimes struggle with feeling a part of the science communication community, and feeling like I have the “authority” to call myself a science communicator. I see others struggle with these things too–like for example, Allison Gasparini, who writes about the difficulty of having the “right” mix of science background and journalism training to compete for scicomm jobs.

On the other extreme, there are super confident non-scientist communicators out there who have no problem self-identifying as purveyors of science to the masses. Some of these folks are writers or journalists who do a great job of digesting and translating science into engaging and useful pieces of communication. Others (knowingly or unknowingly) misinterpret scientific findings, or worse share unverified or false scientific information that mislead the public–whether it be about nutrition, GMOs, vaccines, or what have you.

While most scicommers would agree that scicomm is a critical component of science, it is important to address the concerns of scientists and others about what makes responsible science communication (e.g., citing reliable/verifiable sources, disclosing any biases), and how we can support scicomm-ers in this endeavor.

In my workshop I plan to facilitate discussions around best practices of responsible and effective science communication–principles that anyone, no matter their background or training, can implement to reinforce a transparent approach to science communication. From there I hope to elicit some concrete recommendations on how the scicomm community can support us as individuals to do effective and engaging science communication. I’m excited to hear what misconceptions have most plagued others, and what strategies scicomm folks have for promoting an inclusive scicomm community that values transparency, accuracy, and respect.

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Pssst! What’s the secret to great science communication?

If you plan to attend Science Talk and want to be part of this conversation, I encourage you to join my workshop at 9am on Friday, April 5th. If you won’t be at the conference but want to participate in this conversation, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and questions via email or social media!

This workshop will be just the beginning of a broad conversation about how to create a supportive, inclusive, and transparent scicomm community–and all voices are welcome. The objective of my workshop is to produce a working document of best practices that can continue to be honed and expanded upon as the field of scicomm evolves.

Don’t Not Panic – mixed messaging is detrimental to climate change action

If you try to keep up with the latest in climate change news, you might feel a bit like I do right now: a deer in headlights.

Earlier this week, David Wallace-Wells published an opinion piece about climate change in the New York Times titled ‘Time to Panic’. He argues that based on current scientific understanding and predictions, it is completely appropriate—and even imperative—for society to be in freak-out mode over climate change. This, in turn, should motivate us toward desperate action.

Soon after, Eric Holthaus wrote a short response article in Grist titled ‘Why you shouldn’t panic’. His main argument is, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So, what to do when confronted with scenarios of extreme storms, loss of entire coastlines, and millions of climate refugees? Panic? Or stay calm and collected?

To panic or not to panic—that is the question

Mixed messaging has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Although the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has steadily strengthened and future predictions all point to escalating negative impacts, how to communicate this to the public has remained a source of contention.

Messaging has wavered between extreme doom-and-gloom, à la Wallace-Wells’ nightmarish “post warming world”, and the more optimistic “but there’s still hope!” approach that many scientists and conservationists support.

Wallace-Wells’ reasoning for pressing the panic button is pretty simple: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” he argues.

There’s research to back this up. A study that looked at the connection between emotion and behavior change found that fear and guilt were stronger motivational factors than hope.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain the study’s authors.

Fear is a biological response to perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones that sharpen functions that should help us survive (eyesight), while shutting down ‘inessential’ functions (digestion). This survival mechanism can indeed provide us almost super-human (albeit momentary) powers to overcome imminent dangers—like pulling people out of burning buildings or lifting yourself up over a cliff edge.

But living with constant fear can have serious health consequences, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease. When you’re faced with fear on a daily basis, your body can lose its ability to process emotions and make clear decisions.

As Holthaus says, “your brain literally can’t perceive reality accurately in that state of heightened anxiety. Just ask anyone who has ever had a panic attack. It isn’t fun. Fear shouldn’t be what we strive for.”

I’ve had several panic attacks throughout my life, and I agree; they aren’t fun. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you gulp for breaths, and your mind dabbles with the worst thoughts. You definitely aren’t at your most rational during a panic attack. But what these panic attacks did do was make me realize the very real connection between my mental and physiological health. And they made me act to prevent having more panic attacks in the future.

Taking medication, developing a practice of meditation and yoga, and setting realistic goals all helped me reduce my panic attacks. This doesn’t mean I’ll never have a panic attack again, but it helps me take control of the situation and regulate my behavioral response, rather than feeling paralyzed.

In the same way, I can see how using our fear of climate change impacts to motivate action could help us reduce our climate anxiety and regain a sense of ‘control’ over our collective future. It may not prevent all the impacts of climate change, but it could help us cope and adapt. And when it comes down to it, I think Wallace-Wells and Holthaus actually agree on this—if they could just get beyond their need to differentiate themselves and make people choose sides based on semantics.

Wallace-Wells says, “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.” A clearly defined threat incites action—when humans are confronted with catastrophe, whether earthquakes or war, we time and again work together to rebuild communities and societies.

Holthaus says, meanwhile, “It’s courage, not fear, that will bring about the long overdue world we all need.” This is not counter to Wallace-Wells’ argument. It’s just the necessary response. When faced with life-threatening fear, we must conjure courage in order to act and overcome the threat. After all—without fear, where does courage come from?

Conquering Fear

But how we manifest that courage matters, too. For Wallace-Wells, our focus on consumer culture and individual actions—like buying an electric car or forgoing air travel—is a cop-out, a distraction from the much more necessary collective actions and policies that must be coordinated across regions, states, and nations.

“That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

Holthaus’s article focuses on grassroots movements rather than government policies, and he references a recent essay by Mary Annaïse Heglar to drive home the lessons we can learn from the civil rights movement and the existential threat African Americans have felt for centuries. But even the quote he chooses to display from this essay belies the connection between fear, courage, and action.

“Nothing scares me more than climate change,” Heglar writes, “but I made up my mind to face it head-on—because of my debt to future generations and to previous generations.”

This sentiment echoes the tone taken by Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old Swedish student who’s made waves by chiding world leaders’ inaction on climate change and has led a global student strike to unite the voices of her generation:

‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

To me, this is the biggest challenge we must address to act on climate change. We must perceive the threat as an emergency, one we don’t have the luxury to ignore. Not an emergency that we can’t do anything about—because we can. Once a house is on fire we can still put it out, keep it from damaging the entire property, and spreading to other properties. We can save the people and animals in that house. We can choose to re-build or not, and use different materials and develop strategies to reduce the risk of fire.

We can and should do this more comprehensively, at all scales, for climate change impacts.

In the end, I think David Wallace-Wells and Eric Holthaus are actually on the same team, with the same message—if they could only recognize it. We must turn our fear into action rather than paralysis, and demand the same of our leaders and governments.

As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

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Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash