Neuroscientists Reach Out
(January 28th, 2014) For most researchers, communicating their work to a non-specialist audience doesn’t come naturally. This skill, however, will become more and more important for researchers. Neuroscientist Gareth Hathway suggests a new way to approach science communication.
There are many barriers to good science communication. Possibly the most prevalent is the perception that scientists, who engage in science communication, particularly with non-scientists, are not very good scientists themselves. “You don't want to do it because you’re admitting that you're not a very good scientist in your own right,” said Gareth Hathway, pain researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, “but it's not true and actually the opposite is true.” In fact, scientists regularly involved in science communication activities can boast a more successful publication record, according to a 2008 study.
A second barrier is the lack of training. “When I did my PhD in the late 90s we didn't have any training in science communication,” said Hathway and, “there wasn't any motivation to do it.” Scientists may be very good at explaining the intricate details of their research to their peers, but can fail miserably when it comes to non-specialists. “You can't talk about your area of interest to a group of school children. You have to be more general and coming up with something interesting and engaging can be difficult.”
Nevertheless, the neuroscientist believes researchers have the duty to communicate their results to society, and from this “BrainLab” was born. The idea was to train undergraduate students in how to deliver a workshop to 9-10 year olds, while at the same time collecting data for basic research in pedagogy. It’s a win-win-win situation: school children experience enthusiastic and passionate scientists; university students understand the need for science communication and academics collect data for future publications. “It was really just a way of gathering lots of different interests together doing several things at the same time,” recapped Hathway.
BrainLab’s first year was very successful and it turned out that it is possible for primary school children to understand neuroscience, when explained at an age-appropriate level. Both teachers and school children were impressed with the material presented and would like to repeat the experience in the future. Indeed, the team is planning to keep the momentum going, with 30 primary school classes receiving a visit from a neuroscientist this year as well as 500 children going directly to the university to learn about the brain.
Thanks to many initiatives like BrainLab, the reluctance of some scientists to engage in science communication seems to be fading away fast. Now with every grant in the UK, scientists must include a section explaining how they are going to communicate their work to both specialists and non-specialists audiences. “Universities are very keen to increase their visibility with their local communities,” said Hathway.
There’s still work to be done, however. According to Hathway, what science communication really needs is a joined-up approach within and between universities, supporting researchers from training courses to finding venues to share their work. “Getting a bunch of people excited about, in our case, neuroscience, is quite affirming. It makes you excited about your own work again,” concluded the neuroscientist.