Why should we communicate our research to audiences outside our own field? The question is not a new one and it is also being considered by companies working in technology and innovation.
There are several reasons. Scientific activity forms an integral part of our culture and no progress can be made in research without sharing; results must be reported to generate further research. Moreover, those of us involved in R&D and innovation should also participate in the debate on economic development, sustainability and the kind of society we want. Furthermore, scientific knowledge generated with public money should be returned to society. This is a condition in projects funded by the European Union, which has moved from a model of obligatory dissemination to one of responsive research in which citizens play a role from the start.
Another advantage of effective communication is that it enhances our reputation as scientists, adding weight to our opinions and ensuring that our research and projects are taken more seriously. When you are known, you will find it easier to make connections and work with other groups, even ones that do not, in principle, have a great deal to do with your own field. This is what is known as frontier research.
Tangible Results of Opening Up Science and Taking it Outside of the Laboratory
When bridges are established between research and society, citizens can make a contribution and suggest experiments. One such collaboration is the Patients Like Me platform used by patient groups to promote drug trials related to their conditions and needs, an excellent example of “responsive research”. Another trend yielding dramatic results is the analysis of big data. Data scientists, a type of specialist that is scarce and badly needed in the immediate future, are able to detect correlations in large datasets and this work is already yielding significant results. Big data is revolutionising the research paradigm, as the search for causal relations is replaced by the detection of simple correlations, a method that can generate useful, and sometimes very profitable, predictive models. A good example of just how profitable is the case of Amazon; the online company achieved a more than 30% increase in sales by making recommendations to its clients based on analysis of sales to other customers. Epidemiological studies can predict seasonal flu epidemics two weeks before the effects are discernible in health centres, based solely on the analysis of Google searches for terms related to flu.
Good Practice in Science Communication
Scientific information can be communicated directly (for example, MOOCs or TED conferences) or indirectly, through programmes like the Big Bang Theory, CSI, etc.; the indirect channels reach a wider audience because they also address a population not initially interested in science. Social science, more often applied and explained within the field, can also be disseminated more widely, although traditionally we have focused on the large questions of cultural science, such as who we are, the origin of the universe, of life, or of human beings).
We should always bear in mind that people today are actively involved in the world of information (they search, consult, publish and share information on the Internet) and consequently want to have a voice and are increasingly less willing to tolerate paternalistic attitudes, whether in medical settings or when listening to the explanations of politicians or experts. Scientists must accept that people’s opinions and perception of the evidence can differ (for example, differences of opinions about genetically modified organisms), but at the same time, science can make a huge contribution to freeing us from swindlers and charlatans, particularly through the application of the scientific method.
What Can Researchers Do?
To communicate science to society, researchers can share information in open repositories and on social networks, such as Twitter, and they can organise and participate in blogs. They can also request citizen participation in scientific experiments. A space should also be created for collaboration between researchers, journalists and citizens. We now have the technology to do this, but enterprising projects to make such collaboration a reality are still needed.