The Science Communicators is a new interview series that we are launching as a part of the Wild Lens blog. Each article features an interview with an expert in the field of science communication. There are lots of ideas out there about how to best communicate our science concepts and issues to the general public, and although not everyone will agree on the best strategies, everyone can certainly agree on the importance of this task.
Whether it’s a big-picture issue like climate change, or more localized conservation research, communicating issues in science to the public has never been more important. As our media landscape continues to shift, we hope to hear from experts dealing with a wide array of science communication issues across a variety of mediums as this series moves forward. Our goals is to create a community resource for scientists, filmmakers, teachers, and anyone involved in science communication.
Our very first interview in this series is with Rob Nelson, the founder of Untamed Science, which is a hugely successful website and YouTube channel with the goal of making science fun for students of all ages. Since 2002 Rob and his team have produced almost 500 short videos covering a wide variety of science topics. In fact – he’s got a video that explains exactly who he is and what his interests are!
Here are the questions that I asked Rob:
Why is it important to communicate issues involving science and/or environmental conservation to the general public?
Why is it important to communicate anything? If nobody knows what you’re doing, people don’t care. Nobody is doing work in conservation that isn’t important so the more we can share the work of scientists, the better. The trick is to communicate it effectively. How do we make it fun? How do we make it interesting? How do we drive passion into the viewers that make them want to do something?
Why do so many scientists struggle with communicating their research to a broader audience? Why is this a difficult task?
Science is about understanding the natural world and explaining what you find to others. Most classes that future scientists take in school focus on finding ways to understand the natural world. Yet, a huge part of being a scientist should always be on the importance of communicating it. As a biologist, I found I enjoyed the communication so much that I became a specialist in it. Now, people prefer to call me a “science communicator.” I still think of myself as a biologist that works exclusively on the communication part.
How do you assess the effectiveness of the videos that you produce? What kind of positive impact is this content having on science literacy as a whole?
One of the problems with creating videos that you distribute completely online is that you often fail to meet the people you deliver your videos to. The small subset that leave comments, I realize, are probably extremely biased – or they are 6-year-olds. I’m not sure. Either way I find great humor in people’s comments, which seem to indicate a general lack of science literacy. All I know for sure is that we can still do more.
Do you see science literacy on the decline where you live? If so, what steps are you taking to address this?
Let me start by saying, my extended family are all fairly conservative in their views. I want them to look at the facts from a science perspective and make decisions based on what the research tells. I feel like part of my role as a communicator is to explain it in a way that they can hear it. Doing that is trickier than it might seem though. I hope that our online shorts are reaching them.
What role can new media (online news outlets, science blogs, video series and documentaries, podcasts, etc.) play in effectively conveying issues in science?
Traditional media has almost entirely gone off the deep end. I’ve been involved with several television productions and the problem is that they’re aiming for ratings (or more often, a producers idea of what people want to watch). Ratings are determined by how long someone is watching, not necessarily if they like it or if they’ve gotten the science right. Online media has the chance, I think, to get the science right and tell great stories at the same time.
Are there specific approaches that should be considered when dealing with highly polarized and/or politicized issues in science?
I think so. First, I am both a skeptic and someone who likes to see both sides of every story. Even I get defensive when someone boldly tells the opposition that their viewpoint is stupid. We should never tell anti-vaccine advocates, anti-evolutionists, global warming deniers or others that they’re dumb or even imply it. It simply will not work. I tried hard in my last short on polar bears to walk the middle ground and get the facts out. I think it worked well making it watchable by everyone – that is until I showed Obama at the end (so my family tells me).
Climate change is a particularly tricky issue. I strongly believe that change needs to be political. Convincing every individual on the planet to change is a losing battle. We need to focus our efforts on politicians.
What do you view as your greatest success in science and/or environmental communication? What was the key to this great success? How can others learn from your experience?
In 2002 I started making short science videos because I couldn’t find anything good for students to watch. They were all extremely boring. Essentially the key to my sucess was finding a need and making videos to fill the void. Since then I, with my team, have created nearly 500 online shorts in nearly every science topic. They’ve been well received and quite popular, especially via our association with Pearson’s textbooks. Now, there are lots of great science producers making wonderful online shorts for teachers. Coincidence? Maybe. I prefer to think I may have helped change the trend. 🙂
What would be your number one tip for folks who are looking to become better science communicators?
The best advice is to simply start now. Start telling stories. Tell every science story you can. Replicate the storytellers you like now and slowly evolve it into your own personal style. If you’re doing science videos, by all means, let me know. Send me a link. I’d love to see them.
Tags: climate change, environmental education, environmental outreach, polar bears, Rob Nelson, science communication, science communicators, Untamed Science, wildlife conservation