Science Communication: The Missing Piece of Scientific Training

Group of people meeting in a conference room

“Science is not finished until it’s communicated.”
Mark Walport, UK’s Chief Scientist
Cited in Mollett, Brumley, Gilson and Williams (2017)

The opening keynote address for the 2021 PRIM&R IACUC Virtual Conference, “A Sense-Making Approach to Difficult Conversations About Animal Research” by Liz Neely, founder and CEO of Liminal Creations, was a great start to the annual conference and one that urged me to look back at my own science communication training as a scientist. Liz provided four main tips which she referred to as “spherical cows” for how to be successful when discussing science with someone without a scientific background or with opposing views on the validity or trustworthiness of science.

Throughout Liz’s talk, I had a reoccurring feeling of neglect. Early in a research scientist’s career the goals are clear: publish, publish, publish, and present. In almost all cases, your audience is other researchers, likely experts in the field. Years of my education and training were dedicated to conducting experiments, writing papers and grants, and giving scientific talks. Why was I not taught how to effectively communicate my science with members of the general public? Why is science communication not being taught more within the scientific community?

I am often asked what I do for a living. My very limited response is research compliance. For the past 20 years I have been involved in animal research, using both large and small animal models for my own experiments, and the latter ten years I’ve been involved in the animal research compliance field. I don’t completely divulge the ins and outs of my previous and current profession, not because I am ashamed, but because these are typically awkward conversations riddled with judgement. I find that people often have very strong opinions about animal research, and those against it have the loudest voices! I go back to that feeling of neglect. I was never taught how to effectively communicate the importance of animal research and its compliance to a non-scientist.

To ease this nagging feeling of neglect—for myself and others that feel the same—I set out to find resources and opportunities to learn more about how to effectively communicate about science and my role as a research animal welfare advocate. I was pleasantly surprised to find a plethora of resources. SAGE Journals publishes a bi-monthly international and interdisciplinary social science journal titled Science Communication, including recent articles focusing on how to stop the spread of false information regarding vaccinations (something very hard to combat with the number of social media platforms currently being used to this end). I was also able to find multiple online training courses such as The Art of Communication, offered by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Many colleges and universities now offer not only undergraduate and graduate courses, but even advanced degrees in science communication, which would have been extremely helpful to me during my science education and training. In addition, the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science’s Animal Roles in Medical Discoveries and the California Society for Biomedical Research’s compilation of Fact Sheets offer pivotal examples of medical advancements that have been made possible through biomedical and animal research.  For non-academic training that might be more appealing for non-scientist, The Alan Alda Center for Science Communication is a great starting place. The Story Collider is another wonderful, heartfelt resource that uses multiple platforms, such as shows and podcasts, to “help people of all walks of life—from scientists to doctors to patients to engineers to teachers to firefighters—tell their true, personal stories about science”.  

Although conversations surrounding science may be difficult, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as scientists and supporters of science our contribution to the field of science is important, and we have a voice. It was very reassuring to learn that there are, in fact, many resources are out there, even for those who are not formally trained in science communication. Moving forward, our community needs to ensure that future scientists are not neglected but trained and well equipped to communicate their science.

Whitney Petrie, IACUC21 Blog Squad memberWhitney Petrie, PhD, CPIA, RLATG, is currently the Animal Care and Use Committee Vice Chair for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease within the NIH located in Bethesda, MD. Dr. Petrie earned her bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, NM. She then went on the obtain her PhD in Biomedical Sciences in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology within the School of Medicine at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Petrie completed a Post-doctoral Fellowship in the Animal Science Department at the University of California, Davis and after completion remained at the University as member of the IACUC staff for nearly ten years. During this time, she co-edited the second edition of The Care and Feeding of an IACUC- The Organization and Management of an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Due to the size and diversity of the animal program at UC Davis, Dr. Petrie has a wide range of experience with various animal species including rodents, aquatic species, large animals, and agricultural animals.

Dr. Petrie also served as the IACUC representative for the California National Primate Research Center where she was responsible for IACUC oversight of all non-human primate protocols and lab and facility inspections. In her current role serving as the NIAID ACUC Vice Chair, she has developed specialized knowledge related to the animal care program which focuses on animal models used in infectious disease and allergy research.