Need, duty and pleasure to spread science

The word scientist (now called “researcher”) in our imagination is associated with the image of a man who is often lonely in a laboratory surrounded by stills, test tubes and ampoules, often dedicated to completely different disciplines (such as astronomy and chemistry) , as the paintings of 1500-1600 portray him. No, the scientist is no longer that! He works in a group, often in front of a PC, in laboratories with sophisticated equipment that quickly carry out analyzes that previously required many days of work by many operators.

He is extremely specialized as he dedicates himself to a branch of a single discipline. Not only that, he came out of his ivory turris to communicate with the general public, thus denying two great prejudices: the researcher-popularizer subtracts energy from his “real” task, research; the researcher-disseminator is unable to make himself understood. In recent years a basic training in communication has been considered necessary for those who work or are about to embark on a career in research, so much so that they require the establishment of an ad hoc degree course, the one in “Communication Sciences”, which allows them to know the languages ​​of business communication and science, and the functioning of traditional and new media. Specific masters in Scientific Communication have also been established. In Great Britain, for example, most Research Councils offer doctoral students a few days of training on communication and media, while real courses are offered by universities. The first objective of scientific communication has always been to favor, within the scientific community, the exchange and dissemination of the results acquired and the discoveries made, to facilitate further progress in the various research fields, also on the basis of new collaborations. This aim is still pursued with classical methods such as participation in congresses and, above all, with the publication of the research results in specialist journals. The editorial committees of these journals submit the work submitted for publication to the “peer review”, carried out by experts in the sector covered by the publication itself, who establish its suitability or not for publication.

In the last twenty years, social networks such as “ResearchGate” and “LinkedIn” have been added to the aforementioned methods, always essential. The first, launched in 2008, is a free social network dedicated to all scientific disciplines in which scientists and researchers can share articles, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators. The second, born in 2003, is active in fostering professional contacts of individual professionals and companies and in the dissemination of specific content relating to the labor market. Scientific knowledge can only be disclosed to the general public after scrutiny by the scientific community. And this is where the second and no less important function of scientific communication comes into play, that properly called “scientific dissemination”, aimed at reaching the widest possible audience with the simplest possible language. Therefore today, instead of being branded as a waste of time, disclosure is even considered a “duty”. In fact, if so many researchers end up being passionate about disseminating science, it is also because they have had to make a virtue of necessity. The great paradox that science lives today is that of having the function of guide (few other cultures are capable of changing our way of living and thinking so deeply and quickly) but of being among the least widespread and shared. International surveys, almost unanimously, have highlighted the lack of scientific culture of citizens even in the most advanced countries.

A deficiency made more and more serious by the continuous and rapid increase in knowledge and its practical applications. Furthermore, it should not be underestimated that the opportunities for friction between science and society are only increasing, both for the consequences of the introduction of new technologies, and for the choices we are forced to by the new possibilities that are offered to us, and for the impact of new knowledge on beliefs and values ​​on which identities, cultures and ways of thinking are based. Thus, if until recently communicating with society was optional for researchers, today it has become a necessity. And no one in the scientific world can afford to ignore it anymore. In fact, important decisions concerning the work of scientists are no longer taken within the sole scientific community or the competent ministry, but are increasingly the result of difficult bargaining between different social subjects: national and local politicians, businesses and their associations, interest groups, “moral authorities” and the media. Therefore, researchers, through effective communication, must attract the attention of the public sensu lato, informing them correctly and thus acquiring their consent. The basic objective, precisely, is to establish a deeper and more solid relationship with the company, based on mutual trust.

Only on this basis, it is possible to overcome the inevitable gap that to some extent there will always be between those with very complex knowledge and all the others; this also in order to face any outbursts of irrationality, such as those we are currently witnessing (think of no-vax). Thus, scientific dissemination also has a social role: well-informed people are also more aware citizens. The goodness of the argument alone is not enough to spread science. Simple communication that is “emotionally flat”, that is, not involving, does not “arrive”. It is therefore necessary to interest the public, to make it passionate, a difficult task in a world in which everyone is raising their voices more and more and using the most imaginative systems to make themselves heard by a publication “bombarded” by many different kinds of news.

To this end, the role of researchers is crucial! Even if the communication of science is increasingly entrusted to professionals, researchers are always the first link in the communication chain. Every choice made at the beginning of this chain will affect everything that comes next, for better or for worse. Furthermore, precisely due to the very particular nature of science compared to other sectors, it is difficult for a non-expert to be able to master the subject with the same depth as the researcher who works on it, or to be able to see all its implications, including future ones. The researcher, therefore, has more than others the means to set up communication correctly, and sometimes even to do it in person, a situation in which he will also be able to transmit his passion and love for his work! In addition to spreading knowledge, telling about science helps to make known the value of scientific thinking and a rational attitude in the face of problems that have little to do with science. But how can science be disclosed? We will deal with this topic next time!

Ester Cecere
First researcher Cnr Taranto

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