On Friday June 9, more than one hundred society leaders gathered together at the Newseum in Washington DC for our annual Wiley Society Executive Seminar. We shared a day of listening, asking questions, and exploring ways to improve research communication at a moment in time when anti-science sentiments are ever more pervasive. As Jay Flynn, SVP of Research Publishing at Wiley, stated “science has always been political.” He noted that it is up to publishers and societies to lead the defense of science and communicate the impact research can have on the world.
The day began with a quote from Rosalind Franklin: “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” With this idea as our starting point, the Wiley Society Executive Seminar pushed beyond “cannot” and “should not” to explore how science and life are already connected and why it is so important that they remain closely tied.
Research communication isn’t just about sharing evidence or reporting the findings of a study, though both of those are critical. More deeply, research communication is about a shared drive to understand the world around us, to know things outside of ourselves, and to bring about positive change,
Throughout the day, speakers touched upon some of the challenges of research communication, how we might bridge the gaps, and where we might find connections.
The need to communicate with a shared language was a key theme throughout the day.
Our morning keynote, Dr. Rush Holt, CEO of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, kicked us off with a discussion of the weight that certain words carry. “I often avoid use of the words ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ because they are philosophically loaded terms,” he said.
As Sense About Science USA’s Deputy Director, Neda Afsarmanesh, added later, many words carry different meanings in and out of a scientific context. Uncertainty is a prime example. In the scientific community, it is understood that responsible research leaves room for doubt and debate. But, to the public, uncertainty is unfavorable: it implies that our knowledge is limited and that consensus is lacking. The use of jargon and scientific terms carry a different public meaning.
The Seminar was also a call for narrative in research communication, and for shared stories.
In her talk about bringing storytelling into research communication, Laura Helmuth, Health, Science & Environment Editor at The Washington Post, emphasized the power of first person narratives. She shared examples of editorials authored by researchers who were able to personalize their work and share the stories behind the science. Stories make science easier to understand and humanize the process of discovery for a wider audience.
Early on in the day, Dr. Rush Holt argued that we need to improve our ability to tell the story of the evidence. According to Holt, strengthening the public’s appreciation of the scientific process is the number one job of our scientists. Through narrative and a shared language, scientific discoveries can be communicated in a way that enforces the connection between science and everyday life.
Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s Radio Lab, closed the day with an acknowledgment of the limits of language. Words can never get elusive nature right, and there are limitations on how much we can know through description. But, Krulwich added, words make the pursuit of knowledge all the more precious. They help connect us and they help us understand each other.
Throughout the Seminar, the passion for science and for research communication was palpable in the room. As Robert Krulwich described, science is about finding connections across the gulf of understanding: “You look, you see, and you are changed.”
Image credit: Wiley / Andrew Sariti