Every scientist has a voice
Should researchers wait until they’re senior before talking about science in public? No, says Michaela Mrschtik, a PhD student at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, every scientist can make a valuable contribution.
I started a PhD in cancer research because I am passionate about science and I want to help improve people’s lives. I hope that my research will have a positive impact on cancer treatments someday, but I have discovered that bench work is not the only way for scientists to make a meaningful contribution to society.
Every scientist has a voice, but we often don’t make use of it in public. It’s part and parcel of a scientific career to share exciting findings and talk about science with other scientists, but relatively few researchers do so in non-academic settings. Why?
In my case, I simply didn’t have the confidence. I had started writing for a student-led science magazine at my university and I had helped out at a few public engagement events in my institute. Still, I felt that as a researcher I was too young, too inexperienced and simply not senior enough to make a case for science in public.
An encounter with the charity Sense About Science changed that: through their Voice of Young Science “Standing up for Science” media workshop I realised that every voice – however junior – supporting science and scientific reasoning counts, in particular in discussions where evidence is omitted or misinterpreted.
An insightful discussion with science journalists made me realise one important fact: most reporters want to get their stories right as much as scientists wish for their research to be portrayed in an accurate way.
Nevertheless, misinterpretation or miscommunication between scientists and the media does happen – as scientists we are, however, not doomed to take accept these mistakes. It doesn’t matter if you are a PhD student or a senior academic, we can all contribute to how science is reported, and we can set the record straight by engaging with the media.
An error in a science news story can only be amended if the journalist knows about it. A polite message, maybe alongside some scientific references and comments, can be enough to make a difference. A concerned letter to an editor about a recent science story might even be printed as a commentary.
Scientists can make their voice heard even more directly: we can join the public discussion, in debates or science fairs, or virtually by writing about science on the internet.
Researchers in the workshop panel stressed that a blog is a great tool to communicate science, and Twitter can be used to engage with both scientists and non-scientists in an informal way. Personally, I was sceptical about Twitter, but after the workshop I decided to give it a go – I now agree that it has many merits and creates fantastic opportunities, if used appropriately.
The last session of the workshop emphasised that any of us can and should challenge claims that are not supported by evidence – no matter if these statements are made by the media, politicians or companies. Tackling this issue is the core of Sense about Science’s Ask for Evidence campaign – an initiative to motivate scientists and non-scientists alike to demand more scientific evidence in public discussions.
The Standing up for Science workshop has helped me realise the importance of speaking out and making a case for science, and by joining the Voice of Young Science network I have become one of thousands of researchers who share a passion for science and evidence.
Thanks to this experience, I feel encouraged to take on a role as a “science ambassador” – and I am even keener to spread scientific findings and explore their potential applications in society.