Friday, May 24, 2013

Communicating science, short attention spans, and does it really matter

I had the incredible pleasure of sitting across the lunch table from David Perlman, the Science Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

He is a prolific science writer (over 111 articles written last year), travels (although not as often as he'd like due to reduced funding for journalists), and is particularly interested in writing about evolution and climate change. We talked about increasing communication between scientists and journalists. He gave me some great examples of how journals can best get their content to journalists, and we discussed how Scientific Societies can facilitate interactions between science writers and researchers. I'm hoping to make some summaries of his suggestions and then look into how the Societies I am a part of (SMBE, SSE, and ASHG) all do these, and how we can do them better.

In addition to figuring out how to connect scientists with journalists, it might be useful to know what to say once we're actually connected. Ed Yong has put together a great set of tips for researchers to keep in mind when talking to journalists.

Thinking about science writers, there is a big difference between previous approaches to writing and current approaches that David was quick to hone in on during lunch. Although his articles are posted electronically, he started writing before the internet, and when writing he still keeps in mind the regulations for writing a newspaper article, specifically length restrictions. As newspapers move to more and more online content, there are less concerns about length restrictions, but, the ability to post longer content may not always translate into longer articles. Why? Because they won't be read.

David lamented the short attention span of today's information consumers. He is completely right. I am guilty of it, and guilty of feeding into it. I like to get the gist of an article quickly, I love the tidbits, and I also expect my readers will want something they can comprehend and digest in the few precious minutes they'll spend on my blog. I still appreciate in-depth articles, I am just limited in the number of them that I can, or do, process a day. That does not mean that longer articles will disappear. For example, see this long, excellent article about a rare bone disorder by Carl Zimmer. 

Okay, so there will, at a minimum, be quite a lot of variation in length of electronic-only articles. There are other advantages to writing in an all-electronic format, over for print, including the ease of sharing articles, and the ability to include multiple and colorful graphics. Another advantage of newspapers moving to electronic publishing, suggested by Ed Frenkel at lunch, is the ability to invite guest posts from scientific experts. Scientists are busy with their own research, and cannot write full-time, but many of us like to contribute to the public discussion, and may be able to do so as guest posts.

I am certainly limited in the amount time that I spend writing and researching for posts because I do this after my day (and night) job of being a researcher. But I feel a drive to communicate with the public about science. I am always excited to talk about science, but I especially love hearing the questions that start pouring out. Successfully communicating science involves providing enough background to lead to understanding, and to spark imaginations. Science lets each of us tap into the wonder we often left in childhood. It is the responsibility of scientists - at the minimum those that are supported by federal funds - to engage the public. I truly believe that funding agencies and universities are moving (perhaps at a glacial pace) to encourage more interactions with the public, but it seems that the academic machine still does not properly weight the value of scientific outreach (although I have heard glacial paces are increasing).

Science writing is one way to engage the public. Being open and cooperative with journalists is another. And there are many others (visiting classrooms, volunteering at museums, hosting students, mentoring, meeting with politicians, and on and on). 

David inspired me with his enthusiasm for communication, his wit, his passion for science, and his instant likability. There was one other thing about him that surprised me: David Perlman is 94 years old.

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