Here at the Mass General Research Institute, we live and breathe science news every day.
We’re eager to find out what’s happening in the research labs, centers and institutes at Massachusetts General Hospital (and with biomedical science in general), and share what we’ve learned on our blog and website.
But what about the general public? Do they share the same interest in science?
A recent Pew Research Survey of 4,000 adults aged 18 and over found that only 17 percent of respondents were “active consumers” of science news. Active consumers were defined as those who get science news several times a week, either by chancing across it or by actively seeking it out.
Details of the Study
The study found that general news outlets are the most common sources of science stories, though respondents indicated that they tend to view information from niche sources such as scientific institutions, museums, documentaries and science-specific magazines as more accurate.
More than 80 percent of those who follow science news cited curiosity as their prime motivating factor. Other reasons cited by respondents for following science news was that the information helps them make decisions in their everyday lives, and that they enjoy talking about science with others.
There is also a family connection—many of the respondents who were parents said that they sought out science news due to the activities and interests of their children.
When it comes to the coverage of science itself, some respondents criticized science journalists for too much emphasis on “gee-whiz” writing that doesn’t do enough to explain the relevance of the science for the average person, or assess the quality of the research.
Some 44% of survey respondents said it was a “big problem” that the public doesn’t know enough about science to understand research findings in the news. A similar number of respondents said that with so many studies being published, it can be difficult to distinguish between high and low quality work.
Finding Meaning in the Results
So what does that mean for researchers and the research communications team at Massachusetts General Hospital?
We have an opportunity to be a trusted and accessible voice for science. We can take a hard look at the way we communicate our findings to see if we are using too much jargon, failing to explain key concepts or not taking the time to explain how our work could impact human health down the road—even if the potential benefits are a long way off.
In an era where hot button issues such as climate change and childhood vaccinations have scientists facing an increasing level of scrutiny, it’s important that we continuously work on improving our communication skills.
Communicating Science at Mass General
Through the Office of the Scientific Director, the Mass General Research Institute has launched several programs designed to improve the way our researchers talk about science.
We have organized communicating science competitions at HUBweek and the Cambridge Science Festival, and hosted workshops on science communication in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center For Science Communication.
We also share tips on communicating science on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Communicating to Engage (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
- 9 Tips for Communicating Science to People Who Are Not Scientists (Forbes)
- Science Communication Resources for Scientists (University of Chicago)
Science is a complex and ever-changing field. Each new advance, from personalized medicine to CRISPR gene editing, creates a new set of terminology that might make perfect sense to the research community, but is totally unknown to the general public.
By challenging ourselves to be better communicators, we can advocate for the importance of medical research and its potential to improve the lives of patients, both here at Mass General and across the globe.