Science Communicator versus Scientist: The identity crisis of science communication

Last week I attended a large international science communication conference in New Zealand. One of the keynote speakers at the event was scientist Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa from Japan who spoke about his fascinating research on chimpanzee memory and intelligence. His talk was one of the best and most memorable talks I’ve heard in a long time — deeply engaging, funny, emotional, and surprising as well as highly scientific and informative. Yet, during the post-talk Q&A session, Professor Matsuzawa declared, “I’m not a science communicator, I’m just a simple scientist”. My heart sank at his comment. Why did such a distinguished scientist and incredible communicator feel the need to diminish his skills and separate himself from the room full of science communicators he was speaking to?

The great divide

Upon reflection, I’ve observed a subtext in the field of science communication: the implicit notion of a divide between ‘science communicators’ and ‘scientists’. I first noticed it about a year ago at another science communication conference I attended in Australia. As I sat listening to a panel of science communicators discuss their role, I noticed an underlying theme in which science communicators see themselves as the ‘middle man’ between scientists and publics* — that is, without science communicators, scientists and publics would be unable to communicate effectively.

Some science communicators on this panel projected a stereotypical view of scientists as socially awkward, rigid and boring people incapable of speaking in plain language to anyone who is not a scientist, and implied the role of science communicators as translators who turn scientists’ boring and complicated jargon into interesting and engaging stories and content that the average non-scientist can understand and relate to.

I remember finding the whole conversation simplistic, naïve and self-centered. At the time, I happened to be sitting next to a friend who is a highly accomplished scientist, and also a highly effective and very well known public science communicator in Australia. I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt listening to the panel of science communicators validating their importance by undermining the abilities of scientists.

Could this divisional undertone of ‘science communicator’ and ‘scientist’ risk alienating and discouraging scientists to communicate for fear of being perceived as less skilled at communicating than science communicators — or even worst, for fear of stepping on the toes of those who’s job it is to communicate? Could this be reinforcing the stereotype?

Those who do and those who don't

I also noticed at this conference the use of the label ‘scientists who communicate’, which implies that the other category is ‘scientists who don’t communicate’ or ‘can’t communicate’. The context of these conversations also implied that ‘scientists who communicate’ are a minority.

This is an out-dated, polarised view of science communication: a deficit model where the science communicator fills the communication gap left by scientists who fall into the latter majority category of ‘don’t/can’t communicate’. However, science communication is increasingly a priority and focus of science, and scientists are developing higher levels of interest, passion and aptitude for science communication and public engagement.

In my experience, I have met very few scientists who fall into the don’t/can’t category. I study and work in a university science faculty where science communication is a high priority and I’m surrounded by articulate, engaging, confident and enthusiastic ‘scientists who communicate’ — they are the large majority. Over the many years that I ran science programs and festivals, I can’t remember coming across a scientist who refused or reacted negatively towards getting involved in communication, education and outreach. Sure, there have been some scientists who have been slightly reluctant, nervous or felt outside their comfort zone, but my role in these instances was to provide opportunities and create safe platforms for them where they could build their skills and confidence — working with them in the communication process, not inserting myself between them and the public.

The rainbow of science communication

Brazilian science communicator, Dr Luisa Massarani, suggests that science communicators and scientists exist within a “rainbow” — a spectrum of communication skill and scientific knowledge and expertise. I agree — it is not binary. I like Dr Massarani’s rainbow analogy of people with different skills, knowledge and expertise working together as one unit (leading to a pot of science communication gold).

Identity crisis

The divisional view in which science communicators see themselves as the ‘middle man’ between scientists and publics seems to stem from a place of vulnerability — a kind of identity crisis where some people in the field are feeling insecure about the change in their role as collaborator rather than translator and threatened by the increasing ability of scientists to communicate effectively to publics. I don’t think many (if any) science communicators would explicitly endorse the uni-directional deficit model view of the relationship between scientists and science communicators. Most would agree it’s multidirectional, collaborative and co-creative within the rainbow of science communication. Yet, the subtext arising from some science communicators suggests they hold contrary implicit beliefs, which are infusing into the culture.

Professor Matsuzawa’s comment “I’m not a science communicator, I’m just a simple scientist” suggests that the subtext is rising to the surface and scientists are noticing. The field of science communication needs to take an introspective look at itself and embrace its collaborative, co-creative identity before scientists choose to remove themselves from communicating science altogether.

P.S. – of course, this is not a view held by all science communicators … just a few who have louder voices.

* The term publics, rather than the public or the general public, is used in science communication to acknowledge that there isn’t one single unified public but multiple identities of ordinary people with various backgrounds in science.

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