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Describing Real Science to Regular People


After scientists immerse themselves in scientific research, and spend endless hours learning the lingo, techniques, and latest research in a specialized area, they often dread explaining their work to someone outside the field. However, the process is less complicated than you might fear—and like conversations in real life—almost always benefit from including a good story.

Just like conversations in real life, communication between scientists and everyone else is easier with a good story.
Just like conversations in real life, communication between scientists and everyone else is easier with a good story. Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Why explain science to non-scientists?

Educating and exciting the general public about ongoing research is absolutely essential for maintaining public support for science. This translates into money for science education and scientific research, and public support for policies that improve our communities and our world. For example, iodized salt was introduced in the 1920s and was widely accepted in the US. This addition of iodine to table salt prevents goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), prevents previously common forms of mental retardation, and has resulted in a 3-4 point increase in the average IQ in the US. However, iodized salt is not widely used in some parts of the world—including in some first-world countries—and these communities therefore suffer higher rates of preventable mental impairment. This is just one example of how public support for science is essential for communities to benefit from scientific knowledge. Otherwise, what is the point of advancing scientific knowledge?

For individual scientists, labs, and organizations, effectively explaining the significance of your research is crucial to secure funding, work with the best collaborators, publish in high-quality journals, and effect change. For individual scientists, effective communication helps you earn a degree, secure that dream job, get promoted, and/or earn tenure. In many cases, these life-changing career decisions are made by committee members, deans, and presidents who are not familiar with your area of specialty.

When scientific understanding reaches the point where it can benefit hundreds or millions or billions of people—such as the addition of iodine to salt that is used in food-processing around the world—those benefits will only occur if people in all walks of life believe that scientists are telling the truth. That level of trust requires consistent, honest, and effective communication.

How can you explain complex science to non-scientists?

Start with something that is interesting and understandable. For example, President John F. Kennedy's younger sister Rosemary was born in 1918, after a difficult delivery that might have deprived her of necessary oxygen. Rosemary suffered from developmental delay, and was slow to reach milestones like crawling, walking, reading, and writing. Rosemary was born before iodized salt was introduced in the 1920s, and we will never know if additional iodine could have improved her condition.

The story about Rosemary Kennedy could be used to introduce research on the effects of iodine on fetal brain development in mice, or whether iodine can help patients with developmental disorders. A story about a real person—whether famous or not—elicits an emotional response that makes the reader more receptive to the information that follows. It can be as simple as explaining how you observed a basic law of physics affecting people in a modern day situation, or how a scientist (perhaps yourself) made a mistake that proved to be informative. This last suggestion also has the benefit of showing that scientists are real people.

From your first paragraph, the reader should understand that you are addressing an important and interesting topic that merits further study. The reader may or may not personally commit to learning more about the topic, but you want them to generally feel good that someone is studying the problem.

"The big picture"

Be sure to discuss the "big picture," how progress on a specific scientific question could eventually affect the lives of real people. How much time you spend on the big picture depends on your audience. For an article intended for the general public, I might recommend using the first third of your article to discuss an interesting story and the big picture, then discussing some relevant research, and finally looping back to the big picture. In all, roughly 50% of an article intended for the general public might focus on big picture concepts. For more specialized audiences—such as an audience specifically interested in developmental disorders or a selection committee that includes non-specialists (i.e. for agencies that fund a wide range of research topics, or selection committees at small colleges)—perhaps 25% of your explanation might be devoted to the big picture. For very specialized audiences or instances where there is a strict word limit—such as a scientific abstract—you might spend 1-3 sentences on the big picture.

Use actual pictures

In many scientific disciplines, it would be almost unheard of to publish a modern research paper without any images, graphs, or diagrams. These visual elements play a huge role in summarizing key points. You want to give regular people that same advantage in understanding your research. It might be helpful to include something as simple as a photo of the equipment or animals you use, or actual data from condition A vs. condition B, or a graph or table that summarizes the major results. Just as you would for a scientific publication, highlight the major differences with a box or different colors.

How much detail should I include about the research?

For the general public, the answer is usually "not very much detail, but enough that someone could easily find more information." As an example, let's imagine that you are discussing the effects of iodine deficiency on fetal brain development in mice. You want to briefly discuss why you are studying mice instead of humans (i.e. genes, cells, and organs are very similar, and it would be wildly unethical to do similar experiments in humans). You also need to describe the basic experimental set-up (i.e. some mothers fed a diet supplemented with iodine, and other mothers fed a diet deficient in iodine). Then you should discuss, perhaps in very simple terms, what results were collected (i.e. by using mice that produce a special fluorescent protein in some of their neurons, you measured the growth of neurons at different ages). Then cover what major differences were found, and what those differences might mean.

Almost none of the details that scientists obsess over (i.e. that strain of mice to use, what reporter gene to use, what specific diet to use, when to sacrifice the mice, how to measure the results) matter at all to the general public. Also be aware that a scientist's definition of "recent research" (i.e. what was published in the last year or is currently unpublished) is vastly different from a layperson's definition of "recent research" (i.e. what has happened since the last time s/he considered this topic, which may have been in high school or never).

Be aware that a scientist's definition of recent research is different than a layperson's definition of it.
Be aware that a scientist's definition of "recent research" (i.e. what was published in the last year or is currently unpublished) is vastly different from a layperson's definition of "recent research." Photo by Jaron Nix on Unsplash.

Focus on why, not how

For a general audience, your focus should be on why a particular experiment was done, rather than how it was done. When discussing results and conclusions, focus on how improved understanding changes what is or might be possible in the near future. Don't underestimate your audience. For example, parents of children with developmental delay will be very interested in any research that could mitigate developmental delay, and many of these parents will be very familiar with current medical guidelines.

Some of the details that you should briefly mention to help interested readers find additional information include: the names of key researchers, where the work was conducted, where and when the work was published, the proper name of key molecules, drugs, research sites, etc.

Be selective about what you cover

Perhaps the most common problem that scientists have in explaining their work to the general public is trying to cover too much at once. With effort, an intelligent person can understand the basics of almost any topic, but not every topic. Furthermore, scientists will regularly read research articles multiple times, but the general public expects to read a typical article once. Finally, a newspaper or Internet article might be 500 to 1500 words. That is not a lot of space to introduce and explain a complex topic, so you need to carefully choose one or two main points.

End with a call to action

By its very nature, science is a collaborative and forward-thinking endeavor. All scientists build upon the work of those that came before them, and hope to influence those who follow them. Therefore, I think it's appropriate for articles about science, including those geared toward the general public, to end with a call to action. This can be a way to apply existing scientific knowledge to improve oneself (meditate to reduce stress) or the world around us (support early childhood education). It can also be an action that would further advance our understanding of the world (i.e. donate your anonymous medical records and DNA to a BioBank to help better understand human diseases).

All scientists can help promote the advancement of science by helping to educate and excite the general public about ongoing research.

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