For plenty of scientists, a day in the field or in the lab—i.e., getting knee-deep in science—is their favorite part of the job. Interacting with the public, with media, or with lawmakers seems outside their job description.
However, in an age of fractured media and faltering trust in public institutions, scientists may need to broaden their own concept of their role in society. Effective, useful scientific communication may be more important now than ever.
Rayda Krell, Ph.D., says entomologists are no exception. “So much of what we do intersects with human behavior—if we’re trying to work with famers to explain a new pest management tactic or convincing humans to wear repellent to prevent vector-borne disease,” says Krell, a researcher at Western Connecticut State University and member of the Entomological Society of America’s 2014 class of Science Policy Fellows.
In December, the National Academies of Science (NAS), Engineering, and Medicine issued a report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, that outlined the current body of knowledge on scientific communication and areas in which further research is needed about how public audiences understand science and integrate it with their own lives, beliefs, and behaviors. Recommendations for research topics included exploring the factors that breed trust or mistrust in audiences, studying how audiences make sense of competing messaging, and understanding effective ways to present scientific uncertainty, among many more.
While that continued research is important, Krell says scientists should incorporate communications and human behavior components into their work even at the earliest stages of research, to boost its potential impact beyond the scientific community.
“I’ve seen a theme at meetings about the need to interface more with the social scientists,” she says, “and I’ve been hearing research scientists acknowledge the importance of understanding the human behavior component to ensure our research findings are put into practice.”
After several years as an independent scientific communications consultant, Krell began a full-time position at WCSU to assist on its Backyard Integrated Tick Management Study, a CDC-funded, four-year project led by Neeta Connally, Ph.D., at WCSU and Tom Mather, Ph.D., at the University of Rhode Island. It includes a psychology research component.
“Part of what we want to look at is how humans use their environment, especially their yards, whether or not that affects where they’re picking up ticks, and what kind of standard tick prevention and management practices they have in place,” Krell says.
A significant point in the NAS report is that the “deficit model” of scientific communication, which suggests the public lacks scientific information and simply needs more of it, is false: “A focus on knowledge alone often is not sufficient for achieving communication goals. The deficit model is particularly insufficient when people may need to decide whether to take an action and what action to take.”
Krell says she recommends the work of Randy Olsen, author of “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style,” and Marc Kuchner, author of “Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times,” who she helped to bring to ESA’s annual meeting in 2015.
She also cites examples of creative communication via video, such as Adrian Smith’s “Explained By The Author” series and ESA Vice-President Elect Bob Peterson’s short videos that have accompanied his recent papers. (ESA supports such efforts via its yearly “YouTube Your Entomology” contest, which will return once again in 2017.)
A core focus of Entomology 2017 (November 5-8, Denver) will be scientific communication for insect scientists, whose areas of study impact global issues like fighting vector-borne diseases to protecting the world’s food supply. Whatever communications challenges scientists of all kinds face, entomologists must deal with at least one extra hurdle, Krell says—or maybe it’s an advantage.
“Entomologists all know, when you’re at the cocktail party and somebody says ‘What do you do?’ and you say ‘I study insects,’ you get ‘Eww, gross. I hate insects!’ We have the fundamental ick factor that we’re always trying to overcome,” Krell says. “But the reality is that things that gross people out also fascinate them, so we have that going for us. Everyone has an insect story.”