Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

As Scientists Speak Out About Science, Women and Young Scholars Lead the Way

Full vitae marchforsciencewomen

Image: John Flores, Creative Commons

Loud noises are emanating from the laboratory these days, but they’re declamations, not explosions. This month scientists and other advocates for science assembled in cities around the country for the second annual March for Science. The organizers called on people to march for "a future where science is fully embraced in public life and policy."

Researchers were once content to let their work speak for them. What changed? The politicization of science — partisan debates over climate change and evolution are two prominent examples — has worsened over time. Now scientists want to be heard in the public square.

"Lots of people out there are making reckless, wild claims about what is and isn’t true, and about science itself," said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. "It’s tremendously important for scientists to get out there and explain what they do — to everyone, beginning with school children."

That message is spreading. Science-communication courses have proliferated at colleges and universities in recent years. Janet Alder, an associate professor of neuroscience and cell biology and assistant dean of graduate studies at Rutgers University, teaches a good one in partnership with Nicholas M. Ponzio, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School. "This course is about the importance of communication," they write in their joint syllabus. Their course teaches graduate students both to explain their research clearly and to "emphasize its significance."

Such outreach is multiplying outside the classroom. too. In March, Science Talk, a new science-communication organization, held its second annual conference in Portland, Ore.

Science Talk is two years old. It was founded by Allison Coffin, an associate professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience at Washington State University at Vancouver, and Janine Castro, a scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both had taught science-communication workshops, and "wanted to create a forum for science communicators to come together, share ideas, and network," Coffin said in an email interview.

The organization has grown swiftly. Its March conference attracted more than 250 participants, including academics, freelance writers, leaders of other science-communication organizations, and government employees.

Science Talk’s population skews young. Its biggest constituency is probably graduate students and postdocs. Panshak Dakup, a doctoral student in pharmaceutical science at Washington State University, is one of them. He won a travel award to attend Science Talk’s conference in 2017, and returned this year.

"Science communication is crucial in my life as a graduate student," Dakup wrote in an email. "In my interactions with professionals and laymen, there is almost always a forum where I need to explain what I do as a graduate student." He also talks about his research on a radio show, Greetings From America, which is aired in Nigeria.

"Everyone in science should attend" Science Talk, Dakup said. Facts and "sound interpretation" have to push back against "fake news."

Toward that end, the group’s conference featured discussions with people who work in science communication, sharing their expertise on how to talk about controversial issues — like vaccine safety or gun control — in public settings. How do you control the room when things get loud? How do you defuse conflict? Just as important, participants practiced their skills in workshops on subjects like using social media, creating an effective PowerPoint, or crafting a good elevator pitch.

Another attendee, Jessica F. Hebert, a doctoral student in biology at Portland State University, is studying reproductive health, especially during pregnancy. "It is my goal to make science accessible," she wrote in an email. Accordingly, Hebert supplements her lab time by giving lectures and doing hands-on workshops at a science museum. She also extends her reach via cyberspace by contributing to podcasts like This Week in Science and Geek in the City. Hebert sees herself as a public educator. "I want to help fight misconceptions where I can," she said.

One of those misconceptions concerns gender stereotypes. When children are asked "what a scientist looks like," said Hebert, many "will draw old bearded white men." But those white men, bearded or otherwise, are not much in evidence at science-communication events. Women, and a smaller number of nonwhite men, comprise a solid majority.

"This is a problem we see across the board in science outreach and science education," said Harvard’s Oreskes. "The areas of interface and outreach are dominated by women."

Why might that be? Oreskes points first to what she calls "cultural resonance."

"There’s a general cultural reinforcement for girls to care about community," she said. "If you’re a girl, you take that on board." Boys, by contrast, are socialized to compete for themselves.

Second, it’s a tough road for women in science. "Women are more likely than men to drop out along the way" to becoming a scientist, said Oreskes, or to veer off to more flexible careers than lab science. Women are more likely to scale back their research careers for the sake of a partner than men. Those are not new findings; they date back to the 1970s.

"Women are more likely not to get academic jobs," Oreskes said, "or if they do, not to come up for tenure. So they hedge their bets." Oreskes herself "came close to leaving academic life" early in her career, she said.

Risk management, then, leads women to consider the possibilities of "diverse audiences and different career settings." They’re more open to the varied possibilities that science communication implicitly and explicitly represents. (The career-diversity events for doctoral students that are expanding throughout academe are peopled by a disproportionate number of women also. I suspect that the gender imbalance there directly correlates with the one in science communication.)

The movement toward public science matters for everyone today, not just scientists. And it certainly doesn’t matter for just female scientists. Scientists are rallying everywhere, and that’s good for all of us. More aspiring male scientists need to get out there, too.

As the astronomer Phil Plait out it in his Science Talk keynote address, "Science doesn’t speak for itself. It needs an advocate — you."

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