“Research not communicated is research not done”?

The image of scientists


June has been a month of conferences and meetings, first the science center conference ECSITE in Göteborg with presentations of research and sharing of ideas and experiences concerning science communication. This was followed by the Nordic Physics Days in Lund where scientists communicated their research. Paul Doherty from the Exploratorium shared his contagious joy of physics experiments, in a plenary talk and in poster sessions throughout the meeting.

I was invited to participate in an ECSITE session (Thursday, 4pm, orange room) about the images of scientist, giving the “inside story”. The session opened with Amy Seakins, who discussed what images of scientists should be presented and also studied how visitors encounters with real scientists in the museum affected their views of scientists. Vasilia Christidou presented studies of visitors’ views of science and scientists – not unexpectedly bringing out many stereotypes. (We know that these stereotypes are sometimes also communicated in efforts to excite young people about science.) In addition, she had collected photos from official www pages of participants in the Europe-wide “Researcher’s Night” and noted that the attributes chosen for photographs tend to enhance the common stereotypes -stereotypes known to get in the way of many young people’s possible interest in becoming scientists! Any scientist communicating with the public also communicates a possible image of scientists!

What do we, as researchers communicate in different contexts?

Very rarely, and only in very special contexts, do we discuss the gory details of how the equipment or computer program works, rarely do we tell of the long path to make them work. Typically, the audience expects to hear about the results on a general level and their significance to physics and/or society. During breaks or conference dinners, I might talk about fundamental problems in quantum mechanics, student understanding of different topics or helices in nature or in roller coasters. Meeting the general public, e.g. during science festivals, I often respond to curiosity about quantum physics or relativity – or about math, physics and technology in roller coasters. With school classes, I may try to show fundamental physics principles in everyday situations – and attempt to create a broader image, both of physics and physicists.

Should all research be communicated?

During her presentation during the opening ceremony at the ECSITE, Anne Glover quouted her PhD supervisor, who had adviced her that “Research not communicated is research not done” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozj6QdDSnA4 at 11 min).

Is this true? We can use our mobile phones without understanding the details of signal processing or what technology goes into producing the devices – although a scientifically literate general public is expected to know that they build on research and development in science and technology, rather than on magic.

What research needs to be communicated to whom and who should communicate?

Teachers as researchers?

During and after the Nordic Physics days, many teachers shared results, e.g. of diagnoses and tests compared to grades, and were often surprised about the lacking correlation. Without earlier communication, the teachers were often unaware of similar efforts by colleagues elsewhere. Finding ways for teachers to share the results, possibly in collaboration with researchers, might change their work from “research not done” to “research”.

It is exciting to see many teachers taking on roles as teacher-researchers!