Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Science Communication

The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Atif Kukaswadia, A Scientist Walks into a Museum, PLOS, 10 October 2016

Ed Note: Today, we’re happy to welcome Dr. April Killikelly to the blog. 

If a museum is a stage for knowledge and learning, what happens when you ask a scientist to perform?

Where does science happen? Some might say a laboratory, others an office, conference, or alone in a dark basement. They would all be right and, as a bench scientist for almost a decade, I have experienced all of the above. Although I have narrowed my field of vision progressively through my years of training, I am now exploring the role that museums play in placing science in the broader context of society and culture.

Let me start by painting the “before” picture of my life: I spent my days performing experiments at a kitchen-counter height bench tops, or seated with gloved hands inside cabinets that control the flow of air to prevent cross contamination of cultured cells (called tissue culture hoods), or extracting meaning from rows upon rows of numbers in Excel. Unlike the movies, I rarely hold liquids up to the light but if I do, I am mostly asking the question “how old is this buffer solution?” Scientific laboratories study many different systems by diverse methods but many of them share a few key points: they are usually over-crowded with stocked boxes of supplies. They are also crowded with people (postdocs, students, techs, staff scientists) who are all working frantically to get too much done with too little time, resources, and energy.

Given how I spent my days as a scientist, I was very surprised by how familiar the education and outreach office of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) felt, but also how differently the NMNH approached science communication.  The offices and labs of NMNH are similarly crowded with scientists and supplies. However unlike scientific labs at other institutions, NMNH boasts world-class collections of everything from parasites to new species of mammals, from beetles to whales. It is this collection that places NMNH at the center of scientific research and at the top of tourist destinations. Therefore scientists at NMNH have the unique opportunity to present their research directly to the public.

By contrast, at other research institutions, a scientist’s main method communication with the public is often circuitous and unintended. A scientist (typically as part of a research team) publishes a paper in a scientific journal. This paper may then be picked up by media outlets. As the story gains momentum, more media outlets pick it up, and it reaches a broader audience. “Fantastic!” the scientist thinks, “My science is reaching so many people!” But, like a game of telephone, as the story moves from outlet to outlet, the details and nuance of the story get increasingly trimmed until the version of science that hits the mainstream media often has little resemblance to the original study.

As a scientist, reading this type of scientific news is bitter sweet; I’m glad discussion of scientific material is taking place with a wider audience, but I’m saddened and frustrated by the often-distorted version of science that is presented. There is real danger in only presenting overstated conclusions out of context with none of the caveats or limitations of the original work. From the outside, the communications from the scientific community can appear haphazard and inconsistent. At worst, poor communication with the public can undermine their trust in the scientific method.

Direct communication between members of the public and scientists has its challenges too. You cannot assume neither your audience has a basic knowledge of science nor that they have the time, energy nor desire to listen to all of what you have to say. For example, if you want to communicate how genetically modified mosquitos can be used to stop the spread of infectious diseases, you need to start with the basics – What is a genome? A gene? How do mosquito genes control the spread of disease? How do you modify a mosquito gene? Is this better than other methods to control the spread of disease? Better for whom? Oh, and all this needs to be done for an 8-, 40- and 70-year old in the next five minutes before their IMAX movie starts. This is a clear challenge, especially if you are accustomed to communicating your science to your peers within your field of interest.

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