Unlocking Trust With Open Science Communication

At the Global Young Scientists Summit held earlier this year in Singapore, three distinguished speakers encouraged an audience of young researchers to communicate honestly, passionately and with an open mind.

AsianScientist (Feb. 16, 2023) – The last two years have seen the widest and quickest vaccine rollout in history, with over 12.7 billion shots given globally as of 5 October 2022 according to a recent Bloomberg report. However, many remain hesitant—revealing undercurrents of widespread misinformation and distrust.

To tackle such tricky situations, science communicators must build trust by first understanding their audience and the context of their existing beliefs, according to Associate Professor Alison Woollard, Biochemistry Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

Speaking on a panel at the Global Young Scientist Summit (GYSS), organized by Singapore’s National Research Foundation, Associate Professor Woollard was joined by Millennium Technology Prize winner, Sir David Klenerman, and Professor Valerio Scarani from the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The panel was moderated by Mr Gene Tan, Chief Librarian and Chief Innovation Officer at the National Library Board. Launched in 2013, GYSS invites young researchers from around the world to Singapore to meet, discuss science and technology trends and hear from top scientific minds across a variety of fields.

As they shared their experiences, the panelists focused their advice on getting to know your audience and communicating appropriately. For example, Professor Scarani currently teaches a class called The World of Quantum at NUS. Uniquely, the class welcomes both arts and science students—leading to a room full of curious young minds, ranging from data scientists to students pursuing Chinese studies.

“The message I’ve been trying to push is that there is a way to present quantum mechanics in a way that the fascination and the difficulties and the conceptual interest strike you directly, without going through writing down complicated mathematics and Schrödinger equations and waves, or even things like black-body radiation that, to understand, you need a bit of physics,” explained Professor Scarani.

Aside from public engagement and teaching, it is also important for researchers to be able to communicate their work effectively for grant applications. Grant boards can be made up of experts from a variety of fields—scientists must be able to explain the crux of their work and its significance to receive funding.

Sir David suggests that rather than “dumbing down” details for audiences outside your field, researchers should focus on “distilling [their work] down to the essence”.

“I think we spend so much time worrying about the details that sometimes it’s nice to come up and take a view from the sky and see what you’re doing,” he explained.

Communicating the essence and value of a research project becomes particularly significant when scientists are speaking to groups that are directly impacted by their work. For example, Sir David shared that, as a researcher focused on neurodegenerative diseases, he finds speaking at conferences to people living with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s particularly challenging.

“It’s very personal; suddenly, right in front of you is the person with the disease you’re working on,” he shared. “You want to present your work but you don’t want to give people false hope and you don’t want to be too negative.”

The speakers also encouraged the audience to communicate openly with other researchers. While some scientists may be hesitant to share their work while it is in progress, Associate Professor Woollard and Professor Scarani urged young scientists to trust without fear of misuse or competition.

“I think the advantages nearly always outweigh the disadvantages,” said Associate Professor Woollard. “You’re more likely to find someone in the audience that’s going to come up to you and say ‘I was really interested in your work and it fits with something we’re doing, maybe we could collaborate’. That’s where really important discovery happens.”

Image: National Research Foundation

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