Communicating research to the public

man walking on dried ground

ProjectedChange_bus.pngThe varied effects of climate change. The Zika virus. Vaccinations and immunizations. Are bumble bees disappearing? How do we keep our data private? As the media catches up with the latest scientific findings and relates them to the public, how should the public interpret them? It's a big question, especially given the volume of research publications and the click-bait business model of many online news sources. It can be easy for the public to be misled or simply to ignore significant new findings. A recent symposium on helping the public interpret new research presented some important reminders and fresh ideas:

"Now more than ever, scientists must help the public understand how to interpret our research findings to inform their decisions on issues ranging from personal health and nutrition to the health of the planet for future generations," said the professor of plant biology at UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Leebens-Mack was one of 50 faculty, students and staff who got a master class in storytelling May 10 when Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy offered a workshop at the UGA Plant Center's 2017 Spring Symposium. 

Kennedy encouraged the attendees, whose interests included nutrition, wildlife in urban landscapes, food safety and sustainability, to tailor their messages to the audience. When communicating about science to nonscientists, it's important to make a concept relevant to people's lives, he said. 

"How could it affect them, their children, animals, the planet?" he said. "What could they actually relate to?"

Kennedy has experience navigating and communicating complicated issues. He is writer-director of Food Evolution, a documentary examining the controversial debate surrounding genetically modified organisms and food. Narrated by astrophysicist and well-known science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, Food Evolution premiered June 23 in theaters.

Our office of research, faculty, scientists and administrators work to keep this challenge in mind, though it requires constant diligence and extra efforts. The Athens science cafe series, for example. And this responsibility is certainly not limited to the physical and mathematical sceinces but includes the humanities and important new findings from the social sciences, especially psychology. Communicating effectively creates an added layer of expertise and precision to the pursuit of solid science, one that is perhaps new but also essential for the ultimate success of the investigations meant to help us all live better, healthier and with the planetary consciousness we need.

Teaser image courtesy of the AP via The Atlantic.

Above image: from research by geography professor Jerry Shannon on food insecurity in the Atlanta suburbs.