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Want to Communicate Your Science? First, Step Back

Opinion

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Think for a moment about the words and phrases that life science researchers and executives use on a daily basis. I’m talking about the seemingly simple phrases like “investigational drug,” “novel target,” “immunotherapy,” “clinical trial,” “in vitro,” and “therapeutic window.” There are hundreds more.

Those of us who work in life sciences are comfortable with phrases like these in our daily lives. We use them in our meetings, read them in our favorite industry publications, and put them in our scientific presentations and press releases.

To us, each phrase holds a specific meaning and value that’s backed up by years of scientific education and experience. So we often don’t think twice about using these same words when we’re communicating the impact of our work to the non-scientists in our life. Or, maybe, we don’t even talk about our work when we’re not with industry or academic peers because it’s just too complex. Either way, it’s a missed opportunity.

As scientists and executives at science-led companies, we must improve our communication to better demonstrate the importance of scientific research, engaging everyone from patients to future scientists in an effort to enhance the public’s understanding of the scientific process. To achieve this goal, we need to make a greater effort to explain our science to the broader public. This requires changing our assumptions.

For example, I’ve found through my work that most people don’t really know what clinical trials are, how they are designed, why they are needed, or what participating in one entails. I wonder if more people would participate in clinical trials if they had a better understanding of them. People generally don’t know what a biologic drug is and how it’s different from a small-molecule drug, or why that even matters. The list goes on and on.

So how can we address this and how will it benefit us all? We must be more thoughtful and strategic about how we talk about our work and its impact on society in a way that’s relatable and jargon-free. We want to engage people in conversation, not send them running in the other direction.

The big challenge, of course, is that we all have what’s known as the “curse of knowledge.” It’s a cognitive bias that hurts our ability to communicate with those who don’t share our baseline of expertise. “The curse” is a concept that was famously illustrated in a 1990 psychology experiment that showed it’s nearly impossible to recreate the state of mind you had before you knew what you know today. People with any form of specialty expertise face their own curse of knowledge. But because of the importance that science plays in our society, and the critical need for improved scientific literacy, we as scientists must take this burden seriously.

After all, if the public doesn’t understand the process of drug discovery and development, can we really be surprised that people aren’t eager to participate in clinical trials, or that they don’t advocate for legislation that would advance a strong biotechnology sector? If we don’t create excitement in our students and their classrooms about the impact of science, can we truly expect to increase our STEM workforce? Probably not.

On April 22, Earth Day, thousands of people in more than 400 cities around the world will participate in the March for Science. One major tenet of this event is that support for science is not a partisan issue. But also embedded in the mission for this global event is the idea that public communication of science is a pillar of human prosperity. People from my company, Prothena, will be participating in these events and we are committed to supporting more effective public communication about the vital role that science plays in our society.

I challenge us all to think about how we can help to improve science communication. How can we make our work relatable to the non-scientist? To the young person who has never considered science as a real career possibility? To the neighbor or friend who might one day be a candidate for a clinical trial that tests a potentially groundbreaking new medicine?

I challenge those of us working in biotechnology companies to increase our engagement across the broadest possible communities and to spend more time and resources to provide foundational education about science and how it benefits society. We need to work on defining key concepts in relatable terms, developing compelling narratives, and then testing them out with our non-scientist friends to see what works best.

Many of us became scientists because we feel it’s what we do best and it’s how we can make a positive difference. In the name of scientific progress, we also must begin to see ourselves as communicators.