On May 1, ScienceOnline DC held its first event: a panel discussion about the intersection of science, the government and social media, moderated by AAAS fellow Jamie Vernon (@JLVernonPhD). Held at the American Chemical Society, the discussion covered a lot of territory, including both why and how government scientists should use social media to communicate.
The discussion started off with Gretchen Goldman (@GretchenTG), an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who described a new UCN report called “Grading Government Transparency.” The report graded the media and social media policies of 15 government agencies based on how free their scientists are to speak to the public and to the press. One of the big questions was whether government scientists have the freedom to run their own social media accounts—essentially, giving them permission to have personalities and opinions beyond their science.
Many scientists are uncomfortable with having opinions outside of their science because they don’t want their personal views to raise doubts about their “unbiased” scientific findings. But, as the discussion emphasized, allowing scientists to be people—with favorite TV shows, families, and senses of humor told alongside their day-to-day tales from research—is one of the best gateways to getting non-scientists interested in science.
Using the web to get out scientific facts is one way to communicate science. But panelist Megan McVey (@mcmcvey), communications coordinator (and self-described curator, translator & honest broker) for the United States Global Change Research Program, stressed that straight information isn’t always the best way to get people engaged and interested in research. The framing and the way you tell that information—as a research story or otherwise made relevant to your audience—is just as important. And one way to make those stories relevant is to humanize the science by letting a scientist with personality lead the way.
As an example, panelist John Ohab (@johnohab), public affairs specialist at the Naval Research Laboratory, talked about Dispatches from Antarctica, a US Department of Defense blog and social media project he ran that aimed to show how the military supports scientific research in Antarctica. The whole project crystallized around a single person, US Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan. His secret? “It came down to his personality,” Ohab said. The most effective way to communicate what was happening in Antarctica was to create a human face (with all its quirks) that readers could come to know and trust.
What Twitter and other social media platforms have done is lowered the bar for creating those human faces. It no longer takes a dedicated project with staff, but can be managed by just the scientist alone, noted panelist Sarah Dewitt (@simplifymysoul), communications officer at NASA’s Office of the Chief Scientist. Not all scientists will be stellar at it—communication is a capability and social media a tool, she noted—but it puts simpler tools in the hands of more scientists. It’s also opened the gates not just for pushing out information, but for listening and conversation, added McVey.
Where government scientists really have a chance to shine is to help dispel rumors or bad science during debate. Government scientists in particular are considered arbiters of truth, as advising policymakers to make evidence-based decisions is in their job descriptions. They can use that same authoritative voice to help clear up online arguments based on poor science, and promote hand-picked research that is important for the public to know about.
It seemed like the discussion had just begun when it ended! But it continued for many hours afterward, as the panelists and attendees enjoyed beer and snacks (thanks to ACS).
It was a very successful first panel and we look forward to many more! If you were at the event, please fill out this survey. You can also read a detailed Storify (twitter summary) of the event, Like our Facebook page, follow us on twitter, and send any ideas for panels to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re look for more reading on science, communication and social media, check out these papers and blog posts:
- COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement (PLOS Biology)
- An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists (PLOS Biology)
- Why Scientists Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Blogging and Social Media
- It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet
- Social Media for Science Outreach: Case Studies (Nature/SpotOn)