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| Human World on Aug 09, 2010

Sheril Kirshenbaum says science needs creative, passionate communicators

Kirshenbaum says there’s a gap in understanding between scientists and the rest of us. She talked about how scientists can close that gap.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, a science blogger on Discover.com, and co-author of the 2009 book Unscientific America. Kirshenbaum says there’s a gap in understanding between scientists and the public. In this EarthSky’s Clear Voices for Science interview, she talked with EarthSky’s Lindsay Patterson about how scientists can close that gap, and help the public get a better understanding of science.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: Scientists need to be willing to break tradition across boundaries, and some are doing it.

It’s important to bridge the understanding gap between scientists and the rest of us, she said, because, whether we realize it or not, science is a big part of our daily lives.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: It’s intimately connected to everything we do – whether it’s keeping our families healthy, whether it’s protecting the environment, just in the technology we use to communicate with others… I mean, science is integral to life.

But she said many people don’t understand what scientists do, or what they know. Kirshenbaum believes that a new generation of scientists can take action to heal the disconnect between science and the public.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: I think right now we are touching on an area where there is enormous opportunity. We have a very well-educated group of young people earning degrees looking to use what they know to contribute to society.

Kirshenbaum said part of contributing to the public’s understanding of science is making scientific research more accessible, through new media like Twitter or YouTube, or speaking publicly about their work and discoveries. Kirshenbaum said that today, fewer scientists are ending up in tenure-track, or permanent positions in a university. That’s why scientists who are experts in their field, and can also write or speak to the public, are at an advantage.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: Why not work with people who are thinking about science careers, but teach them science and something else? Enable young scientists to work with journalists and writers and gain skills to communicate that way. Get them more comfortable talking to media. Create the jobs for renaissance scientists, this new generation that’s going to have to step up and be prepared to tackle things we haven’t found solutions for already.

Kirshenbaum spoke about a young scientist she met who explained how he converts his research website into language that’s understandable to kids, teachers, or anyone else looking for information on the internet.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: What he said, what really stuck with me, is he said, ‘Look, if we become the sources that people find when they’re Googling a particular topic, then they’ll be informed by science.’ .. That’s just one example. There’s no single way to do this.

She added that it can’t be just a small group of scientists who are able to communicate with the public.

Sheril Kirshenbaum: I think it’s going to take a lot of people working together, being creative and being passionate, to make it happen.