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June 08, 2011

Science communications: everybody's doing it

By Ben Paylor, University of British Columbia

Science and the way it is distributed are changing. One of the principle forces driving this change is the very media through which you read these words. The Internet. Not only can you find an answer to almost any simple question you post, now there are thousands of people pushing their thoughts and preferences on any possible topic in your direction. This means that a traditionally type-cast incommunicable group (scientists) has extremely accessible and powerful tools at their fingertips which don’t require them to choose every word precisely, navigate publication politics and jump through editors flaming rings. Instead they are able to spill whatever it is that is on their minds.

A recent article in Nature entitled “Of Course Scientists Can Communicate” tackled the myth that scientists are poor communicators. Scientists are trained to write in a certain way for a certain audience, namely the scientist community through peer-reviewed journals, and the change in tone, language and focus required to communicate with the public is often ignored. To provide evidence against the notion that scientists don’t have silver-tongues, examples of Carl Sagan, Humphry Davy and Jacob Bronowski are invoked. Notable exceptions indeed, but interesting to note that none of these inspired science communicators had the Internet at their fingertips. Science communication has moved from the mouths of a select high-profile few, to everyone who has learned that communicating what we do is not only important, but also incredibly easy and fun to do. This phenomenon is certainly present in the stem-cell community with myriad of public outreach programs having emerged around the world to promote understanding to both the general public and fellow scientists alike. Given the elevated level of attention surrounding stem cell research, it is clear that communicating the current state of this field to the public is very important. So who is taking up the task?

One doesn’t have to search very hard to access a wealth of engaging, educational and, perhaps most importantly, free material for this purpose. The University of Utah’s “Teach Genetics” page has been providing high quality educational resources to teachers for a number of years; the site includes a “Stem Cell” page. With numerous animations and activities designed for the classroom, resources such as these make teaching stem cell science an accessible and fun choice for teachers. Apart from institutional efforts, we can also find inspiration in the blogosphere. One of several notable examples, Ed Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, recently featured an excellent post utilizing a dipity timeline to chart the progress of iPS research to the current day. By combining new Web 2.0 resources with thorough background research and excellent communication skills, Ed Yong gives us a powerful example of what happens when talented and interested individuals take science communication into their own hands.


Stepping away from the Internet, another approach to stem cell outreach has been to engage young students before they get to the University level. In California, Laurel Barchas, a graduate of Berkeley, designed a number of stem cell based high-school curriculum modules for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. CIRM then pitched the initiatives to state education committees and these modules are now available state-wide with plans to expand the program nationally. The free curriculum resources, which address numerous science education elements through  integration of stem cell based educational material, were highly attractive to high school science teachers, who are keen to adopt new and relevant material.

If you read this blog extensively then you should be no stranger to another success story, which has emerged from the stem cell community in Canada, StemCellTalks. Originally conceived and implemented in Toronto by Paul Cassar, Angela MacDonald and David Grant, StemCellTalks promotes engagement of talented young high school students, enthusiastic grad students and leading researchers during a day-long symposium which addresses current scientific and ethical topics surrounding stem cell research. The annual project is now in its sophomore year in Toronto and has expanded to numerous institutes nationwide; satellite symposia have been held in both Vancouver and Ottawa with numerous others planned events for 2012 (Halifax, Calgary, Hamilton). This “trickle-up” approach of engaging and educating high school students is clearly one that works.

The upcoming ISSCR conference in Toronto has provided an excellent stage for stem cell researchers to pause and take note of stem cell outreach initiatives occurring around the globe. “An Informed Society – How to participate in public science education and why it matters”, a satellite symposium taking place on June 15th at 9am, aims to bring together people involved with stem cell outreach from around the globe. The goal of the event is not only to educate the participants on the process of stem cell outreach, but also to provide a framework around which individuals involved in public science education from around the world can network and collaborate. If you are attending the ISSCR and are interested in the topic, I recommend you stop by.

But be warned, with all the information out there today, it’s easy to get so predisposed to listening that you stop thinking that you have something to say yourself.



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To help encourage and develop science communications, we'll soon be announcing the Genome Alberta Scholarship for the Science Communications Project at the Banff Centre this summer.
Targeted in this case at a candidate interested in Life Sciences.

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