Why scientists need to

communicate better with public


Several years ago, a YouTube video of a shrimp running on a treadmill sparked a huge controversy when it was known that this was part of a research experiment funded by half a million dollars in taxpayer money. This experiment had a clear scientific purpose: To enhance our understanding of how marine environments impact the immune systems of aquatic life forms. But since this purpose was not adequately explained to the general public, a widespread social backlash was fomented by those who regarded it as an example of wasteful federal research spending. This backlash finally died down once researchers working on the project fully explained the rationale behind their experiment. The situation clearly illustrates how poor communication between scientists and the general public can result in misunderstandings and other negative consequences.


Over the past couple of decades in Korea, scientists and engineers have made great efforts to publicly explain the relevance and importance of their research and development projects. However, it seems that further efforts are needed. People still generally regard scientific research-related issues as being beyond their grasp, and most scientific news articles and press releases contain specialized terminology that many people find difficult to understand. In a survey from 2015, 98 percent of respondents agreed that the science and technology community had a responsibility to explain its search to the public, while 95 percent also said this is currently not being done effectively. Albert Einstein once said "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself." With this in mind, it is imperative that scientists learn to publically explain their research findings in a manner that can be easily understood, since it is public tax money that makes their research possible. In addition, scientific and technical concepts expressed in simple, concise language can be more easily applied to a myriad of academic fields, such as the social sciences, humanities, cultural studies and the arts. Furthermore, by keeping the general public updated on the latest scientific advances, we enable them to make informed decisions throughout their everyday lives.


For this reason, scientific writing skills have long been taught to university-level science and engineering students in many developed countries. In recent years, this trend evolved into the modern field of "science communication," which refers to methods of effectively presenting scientific information to non-experts, both verbally and in writing. For example, MIT's Writing & Communication Center famously offers programs on how to more easily communicate scientific concepts to the general public. However, in Korea, only a few university-level science curricula provide coursework-based opportunities for students to learn these skills. Therefore, to enrich the discourse between scientists and the general public, Korean universities need to consider integrating such opportunities into their science classes.


Fortunately, opportunities are increasing for the general public to educate themselves about scientific breakthroughs made possible by their tax money. In the United States and other developed countries, citizens are not simply witnesses to innovation; they play an active role in determining the direction of future discoveries. Meanwhile in Korea, there remains a shortage of science and technical infrastructure and programs easily accessible to people from all walks of life. That is why the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the organization for which I work, recently launched a new "science museum" within a section of Seoul's underground metro near the KIST campus. Our goal was to take a highly visible public area and utilize it for helping people become more actively engaged in common scientific issues.


Up until now, Korea's science and technology community has received enormous support from both the national government and the general public. However, there is the strong possibility that the growth rate of Korea's research and development budget will decline sometime in the near future. Scientists must learn to effectively promote science and technology not only to the government, but to the general community as well. Through enhanced social acceptance and the understanding of public spending on science and technology, we can finally begin unlocking its limitless potential.


Posted by KIST PR

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