Science communication: Getting it right…

Science is one of the most important of human activities, and consequently it’s often funded by the public via their taxes. In order to inform the public of the ways their ‘tax dollars’ have been spent – as part ‘thank you’ for that past funding, and partly to encourage future funding(?) – there is a need to communicate that science*. That is the area known as ‘scicomm’. And it’s not an easy thing to do; science can be quite complicated.Making science understandable to non-scientists (or even other scientists who are non-specialists) is therefore a challenge. But, it’s a challenge that must be tackled and overcome if we are to improve the general scientific literacy of the population.

Schematic overview of the field and the actors of science communication
Schematic overview of the field and the actors of science communication according to Carsten Könneker. Image: Spektrumdw / Wikipedia

We at Cuttings HQ try really hard to get our news items right (we don’t always succeed and are grateful to vigilant readers who contact us and thereby enable us to improve our scicomm activities). As part of our brief to educate we want to mention two scicomm examples where things that have been published aren’t quite right and can give a misleading impression in the mind of the reader.**

First, a science news item from Science Daily, a site that publishes items selected from press releases and other material it receives and which are edited to ensure high quality and relevance. In an article entitled “How chloroplasts maintain energy efficiency”, and which is commenting upon a PNAS research paper***, we have this statement: “Summary: All life on earth ultimately relies on energy from the sun, and photosynthesis is the vital link” (and with which repeated sentence the full news story begins). Does it though? Does ALL life on earth ultimately rely on energy from the sun? What about the biodiverse communities that exist around deep-sea hydrothermal vents? In those ecosystems, which are at ocean depths entirely devoid of sunlight, the ultimate energy source is surely that provided by the exploitation of geochemical sources by microbes.

Most readers of the news item – from Science Daily “one of the Internet’s most popular science news web sites” recognised “not only for the quality of its content, but for its well-educated audience as well” – might not be aware of those rather specialised ecosystems, and the statement would therefore appear to be accurate from their knowledge base. But, some amongst its well-educated audience will know about hydrothermal vent communities and therefore are right to question the veracity of the statement. If they have doubts of that statement’s accuracy, what else in the article might they find that’s problematic? Can they believe what they read? Is the ‘comm’ in scicomm here somewhat diminished; is it more scicon?

The second example is from the Introduction to an original science article entitled “Plant-inspired pipettes” by Keigo Nakamura et al.. That section begins “Unlike animals, plants usually do not change their habitat once rooted.” Having read that, my knee-jerk reaction was to say: What? That’s just plain wrong!

There are many examples where plants DO change their habitat. Indeed, were it not for the intimate interactions with, and chemical and physical modifications of, the habitat by their roots, plants could probably not survive where they are rooted****.

Eventually, upon re-reading and thinking about what the sentence was – probably! – trying to say, I realised the point being made was that plants stay where they are rooted; they don’t move away to another place – i.e. they don’t ‘change their habitat’ – unlike mobile animals. This scicomm example therefore seems to be more an issue of the word-choice rather than a mis-statement of fact as in the first example, but it’s still problematic, and indicates the confusion that can arise.

So there we have it; two instances where communication of science-based stories isn’t as good as it could be. Is Mr Cuttings overly-pernickety? Should we care that things sometimes aren’t always expressed with 100% accuracy or clarity? In those instances it was – probably… – reasonably clear what was actually meant, but we are here talking science and its communication. If we expect high standards of the practitioners of science, surely we should expect the same high standards of those who communicate that science (and who may also be the practitioners of that science…)? Just as we can all improve our scientific writing, we can all improve our writing of, and about, science. And, in so doing, increase our writing’s impact!

Ed. – For more on ‘slippery sentences’ and accuracy in science writing, see the Editorial, and “An editor’s notebook: Analyzing and untangling sentences”. And for some thoughts on science communication in a post-truth society, check out the PNAS article by Shanto Iyengar and Douglas S. Massey.

* Scicomm is also considered to be part of a scientist’s duty, to inform non-scientists of the work that’s being done for the benefit of all humankind.

** To make this Cuttings item work we had to use real examples of science writing. We have no intention of, nor interest in, ‘naming-and-shaming’ the individuals who have penned the examples that have been selected. Mr Cuttings therefore hopes that the individuals concerned will accept the observations as a genuine attempt to help improve scientific literacy – and literature. We can all [Ed. – Mr Cuttings most definitely included here!] improve the way we write and communicate science; these examples just highlight how hard it can be to get it 100% right.

*** Which, for completeness, is “ATP compartmentation in plastids and cytosol of Arabidopsis thaliana revealed by fluorescent protein sensing” by Chia Pao Voon et al..

**** And that initial interpretation is entirely understandable, consistent as it is with the first statement in that sentence that animals do change their habitat, especially animals such as humans that not only change their habitat but often do so to the detriment of themselves and other living things (e.g. [20,21,22])…

Further reading

Nakamura, K., Hisanaga, T., Fujimoto, K., Nakajima, K., & Wada, H. (2018). Plant-inspired pipettes. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 15(140), 20170868.

Angers, D. A., & Caron, J. (1998). Biogeochemistry, 42(1/2), 55–72.

Gregory, P. J. (2006). Roots, rhizosphere and soil: the route to a better understanding of soil science? European Journal of Soil Science, 57(1), 2–12.

Freeling, B., Doubleday, Z. A., & Connell, S. D. (2019). Opinion: How can we boost the impact of publications? Try better writing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(2), 341–343.

Slippery sentences. (2018). Nature Plants, 4(11), 847–847.

Iyengar, S., & Massey, D. S. (2018). Scientific communication in a post-truth society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201805868.

Voon, C. P., Guan, X., Sun, Y., Sahu, A., Chan, M. N., Gardeström, P., … Lim, B. L. (2018). ATP compartmentation in plastids and cytosol ofArabidopsis thalianarevealed by fluorescent protein sensing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(45), E10778–E10787.

Western, D. (2001). Human-modified ecosystems and future evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(10), 5458–5465.

Sagot, M., Phillips, C. D., Baker, R. J., & Stevens, R. D. (2016). Human-modified habitats change patterns of population genetic structure and group relatedness in Peter’s tent-roosting bats. Ecology and Evolution, 6(17), 6050–6063.