March for Science Can Inform and Inspire

March 26, 2017

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle
The March for Science, on April 22, will be an unprecedented gathering of scientists who study anything from cells to societies, and an opportunity for them to promote what they all have in common: a passion for observation and discovery. This is a big deal for a group that is typically found deeply engrossed in labs, talking excitedly among themselves in a peculiar language of jargon and acronyms (read: We don’t get out much).

Our tendency to hole up and speak jargonese hasn’t done us any favors: It has prevented us from being active participants in the public dialogue about science. It has allowed agenda-driven nonscientists to misinform the public. And it has cost us countless opportunities to share with the public the exciting discoveries made in our labs.

The Pew Research Center reports that only 51 percent of scientists have ever talked to the media about their work, only 47 percent have used social media to talk about science, and only 24 percent have blogged about their work. We certainly have room for improvement. Perhaps one of the biggest wins of the March for Science is already happening: Scientists are getting excited about engaging with the public and are realizing the importance of doing so. The March for Science is an incredible opportunity to disseminate a strong, unified message. The million-dollar question: What is that message?

As we dive into science activism via the march and, ideally, many subsequent activities, we scientists need to think carefully about our message. Are we playing defense or offense? Obviously, the March for Science is a reactive, defensive response to recent events. The danger of playing defense, though, is that it leads to combative messages designed to strike back at the few who question our goals and intentions. To this end, we can hold up signs attacking "alternative facts," climate denialism, and anti-vaxxers. Or we can go straight for the jugular with ad hominem attacks on the current administration. While that might feel cathartic, it’s neither convincing nor informative.

Even worse, the adverse effect is that we’d produce a treasure trove of photo ops that will be instantaneously converted into propaganda designed to persuade the public to dismiss us at elitists, out of touch, and no more skilled at engaging in productive dialogue than an irate Facebook friend. We can do better. We must do better.

The March for Science isn’t an "us versus the public" proposition. We serve the public. We have the honor of using public tax dollars to do our work. With that honor comes the responsibility to communicate to our gracious funders how we use that investment. Perhaps the best use of the march is to show members of the public what they are getting for their investment. I suspect they’d like to know.

Even though the march arose as a reaction, we can mold it into something proactive — our coming-out-of-the-lab party. The website describes the march as "a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community." This is our moment to shine a spotlight on the amazing things science has done for the country. It is a moment to communicate the patriotism that is inherent in science — our collective goal, after all, is to improve the health and well-being of our communities.

I challenge scientists, as they prepare for the march, to ask themselves: What do I wish the public knew about my field? As a prevention scientist, I find that people are surprised and excited to learn that science has produced the knowledge to prevent 50 percent of cancer deaths. Many of us are working hard to put that knowledge to work in communities across the country. I wish the public knew that every day I go to work as a soldier with that mission, and I plan to communicate that message with my sign for the march.

Imagine that the march produced a sea of signs, each noting a contribution science has made to society. No ire, sarcasm, or defensiveness — just a collective curriculum vitae of accomplishments. I can’t think of a better goal than to communicate our impact, and this is a chance to inform and inspire. Will we?

The next day, we’ll hang up our signs in the lab right next to the conference posters we don’t have the heart to throw away. We’ll swap stories and then get back to work. But I hope we don’t go back to business as usual. Instead, I hope the march spurs scientists to regularly devote time to keeping the public informed of their work. We can accomplish this by developing a professional presence on social media, engaging with local and national media, building relationships with our university public-affairs offices, blogging, and writing op-eds for popular news outlets.

But scientists can’t do this work alone. We need professional organizations to create partnerships with media outlets, academic departments to provide media training, and promotion and tenure committees to reward this form of public service. The March for Science is the long-needed push for the American scientific establishment to take the lead in shaping the public conversation about our impact. We can no longer afford not to.

Sherry Pagoto is a behavioral scientist and professor in the department of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.