Express yourself, scientists – speaking plainly isn’t beneath you

Science comes in all different colours, and someone needs to explain what they are. alphadesigner

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Should scientists communicate with the general public? Dr Danny Kingsley makes a case for speaking out.

Scientific articles don’t often feature on beside tables or as bathroom reading. Not because they aren’t important – they are – but most are, frankly, indecipherable.

I teach the plain English writing component of a workshop for PhD students. Before we begin each workshop, at least one participant usually says they don’t see why they need to communicate with the general public. Some of them say they “only want to communicate to other scientists”.

Well, get real.

My stock response to this is that researchers have an obligation to share the findings of their research with people other than their immediate circle.

Senator Kim Carr, Australia’s Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, said in 2008 that researchers had a “duty” to take on a public role due to the nature of their work and the source of their funding.

Research in Australia is almost exclusively funded by the taxpayer. Think about that for a moment. Many researchers don’t feel it is necessary to communicate with the people who pay for them to be able to do their research.

And research is an expensive business. In 2007, funding for research, research support and research training was around $2.6 billion.

The taxpayer has a right to know how that money is being spent, without feeling they need to complete their own PhD to understand the language.

Get talking, or get walking

Of course, scientists do actually communicate their research all the time. The “currency” in the scientific world is the journal article and conference paper. Scientists can’t escape this. The published output of a researcher directly affects his or her career.

Such papers were not always impenetrable to all but a chosen few. It’s hard to believe now that at the turn of last century scientific articles had the same readability as the New York Times.

And yet over the decades, scientific literature has become more and more inaccessible – partly because of the increasing specialisation of science and the accompanying need for jargon words.

Public communication can be daunting, but it’s worth it. Rafael Peñaloza