Why Is There a Gap Between Scientists and the Public?

On the coronavirus, fake news, and science communication.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Why do scientists fail to keep the spread the disinformation surrounding the coronavirus at bay?

In a recent and much-shared article, Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr complain about the lack of contact between academics and the public:

MANY of the world's most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today's public debates or influencing policies.

The problem here is the current academic system itself, a system, that has become more and more competitive over the years, forcing graduate students to publish much more than any of their supervisors did when they received their jobs. As Biswas and Kirchherr point out:

[S]cholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media. "Running an opinion editorial to share my views with the public? Sounds like activism to me," a professor recently noted at a conference, hosted by the University of Oxford.

Why Is There a Gap Between Scientists and the Public?
Source: Pexels

While many publications in prestigious economics journals used to explicitly give policy-recommendations, this practice has become rarer and rarer, delegated to op-ed pieces in newspapers. The norms of science have continuously shifted towards a 'Publish-or-Perish' culture. There is little time if any to write for the public.

Yet, there are over a million peer-reviewed articles published each year, many of which (in the humanities the large majority) are never cited. What is the point of such articles; of such research?

Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr suggest that most papers are never fully read by more than 10 individuals. Many citations may solely come from obligatory references to the extant literature - which would include a brief skimming of the conclusion or abstract. Unless a paper makes it into the very best journals such as Nature or Science, it is unlikely to have any lasting impact. Yet, even those papers are not read by everyone. Science has become too 'noisy', there are simply too many new publications to keep track off.

One way in which much of this problem could be overcome is by serious science writing. Op-eds, blogs, and commissioned articles reach much larger audiences than entire issues of journals and can thus help scholars to impact policy-making.

When I worked in the European Parliament, a particular observation was terrifyingly striking: no one read the scientific reports. There were far too many, they were far too long, and far too technical for anyone but specialists to comprehend.

For science to impact actual policy-making it might not be enough to deliver thick manuscripts of evidence. Scientists might be forced to become themselves engaged in policy-making. Is this what an anonymous Oxford Professor dismissed as 'activism'?

It might be - if we would like to define it that way. But science was never entirely a-political. Science is about understanding the world in order to improve our lives (and perhaps those of other species). Science crucially serves human purposes and thus necessarily involves pragmatic considerations. One may even argue that an engagement with the public is necessary for scientists to do their jobs well.

Yet, our scientific communities are seemingly becoming more and more detached. We need to move away from a system that only rewards the number of publications in reputable journals. What matters, is whether these studies matter - i.e. have an impact. Otherwise, the publication 'noise' of papers that will never be read by anyone but their reviewers will increase more and more.

There are 3 problems then, that need to be solved:

1. The Stigma surrounding Popular Science Writing among Academics

2. The Way Academic Credit is Awarded

3. A Credible Format in which Scientists Can Engage with the Public

Platforms like The Conversation, Medium, and Psychology Today have embraced this format, but it is only a small number of academics that makes use of these tools for public dissemination. In addition, the proportion of science writers has decreased over the l

ast decades. A small number of credible scientists is spending their free time to fight back against a stream of misinformation (fake news) surrounding the Coronavirus. This is a dangerous development and requires some substantial changes in how we see scientists and their role in society.