Science communication: how far we’ve come

Science communication: how far we’ve come

Bethany Roberts, Writer

“Nothing in science has any value if it is not communicated.” 

Science has to be accessible, and not just to those who are professionally trained in it. Anne Roe, the author of the above quote, was a firm believer in this. She was a clinical psychologist and was the first woman to be tenured in the Harvard Faculty of Education. She worked to make her field of science accessible to the public by founding Harvard’s Center of Research for Careers. 

People like Roe have existed since Ancient Greece. The word science comes from the Latin word Scientia, meaning knowledge or experience. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” 

Working to make science communication accessible to the public is a tall order. However, people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and many others use their platforms to do exactly that. From radio shows to television to podcasts, science education has become more and more available. 

For many of us, science education is accessed through television shows. From “Magic School Bus” to “Our Planet,” TV shows have been the best way to sit back and learn about the fascinating world of science. 

However, it has not always been so easily accessible. Before the invention of television, how were people receiving science news? We could go back to Ancient Greece, and the philosophers of the time, or to 1888 when National Geographic published their first magazine issue, but I want to focus on slightly more modern times. While science communication was in the form of literature, there were plenty of people who did not have the education (or access to education) needed to enjoy science literature. So, what was done to combat this? In the 1900s, a wonderful thing was invented that revolutionized communication: the radio. 

Radios did not become mainstream until around 1920 when Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse Electric Corporation engineer, began airing records to his friends. According to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), an executive at Westinghouse saw the potential in what Conrad was doing. This was when the idea of radio broadcasting started to take full form. 

The first commercial broadcast, a term that Conrad coined, was on November 2, 1920. This was a deliberate choice – the day of the 1920 election between James M. Cox and Warren G. Harding. PBS writes that the “power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.” 

This was a huge step forward for communicating to the masses. Until the 1950s when the invention of the television superseded the radio, the only way to hear news stories was through newspapers or radio broadcasts. Thus, science communication began to reach audiences that it had not been able to before. “Adventures in Research,” a radio show that first aired in 1942, was one of the first non-SciFi, science-based radio broadcasts. The pieces were about 15 minutes long and were aimed more toward the younger generation, but soon gained popularity amongst adults and children alike. 

The show was hosted by Paul Shannon and written by Dr. Phillips Thomas, who was a Westinghouse physicist. “Adventures in Research” went through accounts and reenactments of historic discoveries and inventions and had both sound effects and an organ accompaniment. The show, according to the Library of Congress, was advertised as an “educational ‘public service’ program” and was heard all around the country. By 1944, the show was translated into Spanish and reached South America. Telecasting magazine wrote that the show was broadcasted on “243 commercial and educational stations, 64 AFRS [Armed Forces Radio Service] stations, and 78 member stations of the Inter-Collegiate Broadcasting System” by 1952. The program was also transcribed and made available to teachers to use in their classrooms. 

There were a few other science radio programs such as “Earth & Sky or StarDate,” but science fiction overtook them. Science news that was both fun and educational took the back burner as comic book-based radio programs became more popular. 

As time moved forward, radio shows fell under the shadow of television. This ushered in an age of entertainment that revolved around showcasing science rather than talking about it. The general population no longer had to rely on their imagination skills – they could watch what was being discussed unfold in their living room. There have been hundreds of science-based (and sci-fi) television shows over the years, but the communication has varied quite a bit. 

In 1951, “Mr. Wizard” aired its first episode. Created and hosted by Don Herbert, the show was dedicated to science and technology. Herbert also wrote popular science books. Though all his publications were originally meant for children, he had a large audience of all ages. The show involved small, family-friendly experiments paired with an explanation of the chemistry/biology/physics/etc. that was behind the reaction. Since it was pointed to the younger crowd, all of the scientific terms were explained thoroughly (when used). Most of the time the concepts were described using layman terms, which allowed anyone, whether they were trained scientists or not, to enjoy and understand the program. 

Thirteen years later, a new British show was on the rise – “Horizon.” First aired in 1964, “Horizon” focused on science and philosophy. The “Horizon” creators published this mission statement for the show: “The aim of ‘Horizon’ is to provide a platform from which some of the world’s greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.”

This show is still producing content, even in 2021. “Horizon” is an incredible, educational show that allows people to venture into the worlds of science and philosophy without any prior knowledge of the fields. The hosts spoke clearly and went out of their way to explain any intricate concepts to ensure a good understanding for their audience. 

As television progressed, more shows were able to take off. Programs about science and its related fields gained popularity. In 1973, “The Ascent of Man” debuted. This program revolutionized documentary making. It is a 13-part documentary series commissioned by David Attenborough and written and presented by Jacob Bronowski. According to History of the BBC,The Ascent of Man” was “presented as a personal view of humanity’s scientific achievement, exploring science, as “Civilization” had explored art.” Bronowski was known for communicating complex concepts in an easily comprehendible way and quickly became a cherished TV personality. 

“The Ascent of Man” explored a multitude of science-based fields such as chemistry and astronomy. Bronkowski said this of the show: “These programs are about the making of creation – man making mistakes, then seeing the right answers. Science is creative, not a mere mechanical practice.” The show was made more enticing due to Bronkowski traveling to various destinations to film the series (Easter Island or Auschwitz, for example). 

Perhaps one of the most notable television series that came out in the 70s is “NOVA.” This is another program that is still on today. According to PBS,NOVA” is “the most-watched primetime science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly.” 

The program was inspired by “Horizon” and explores topics from ancient worlds to tech and engineering to body and brain. The show is hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a renowned astrophysicist, planetary scientist, and author. Another man who is praised for being able to take complicated ideas and communicate them in an easily understood language. 

Perhaps one of the most well-known science shows came out in 1980: “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” with Carl Sagan. This show, while only running for one season, was groundbreaking. Sagan explored the origin of the universe. The show covered a range of topics about space and astronomy and gained popularity quickly. The show is the inspiration for Cosmos: “A Spacetime Odyssey,” which was hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2014. Sagan was able to take extremely intricate and confusing concepts and present them in a fun and comprehensible way. He brought his science to a global audience and is still praised today for the show’s brilliance. 

Around 13 years later, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” aired its pilot episode in 1993. Bill Nye took to the screen and brought fun, non-complex science to new heights. Played in classrooms and living rooms across the country, Nye showed how science and scientific experiments can be easy, amusing, and enthralling. 

While his show also targeted a younger audience, Bill Nye reached (and is still reaching) a large audience. His newer show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” debuted in 2017 and ran for a year. He is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Planetary Society, which according to their website is “the world’s largest independent space interest group.” 

A year after “Bill Nye the Science Guy” premiered, a new PBS show popped into existence: “The Magic School Bus.” The fictional character Ms. Frizzle, a grade school teacher, uses her magic school bus to transport her students into whatever lesson she has planned for the day. The show took science communication for kids to a different level- from how chicken eggs are fertilized by physically going into a chicken’s reproductive system to turning into microscopic people and going inside a human body that has the flu. The show was instantly popular and ran for a total of 52 episodes. 

The show, speaking from a personal perspective, is just as entertaining for adults as it is for children. It shows complicated ideas in a new way- by literally going inside the problem. Each concept is discussed in an exciting way, and the students in the show experience it first-hand. As the show explores the physical world, processes, and scientific concepts, you are transported into it. As one Google reviewer said, “The Magic School Bus is amazing! I watched it ever since kindergarten and I loved it every time. It’s one of the reasons why science is one of my favorite subjects.” 

As the 21st century began, science was becoming more and more understood, and it was the experiments that started to blow people away. Enter: “Mythbusters.”

“Mythbusters” premiered in 2003. This show brought in a new age of science television. According to Discovery Go, the “Mythbusters” team “aim to uncover the truth behind popular myths and legends, mixing scientific method with gleeful curiosity and plain old-fashioned ingenuity to create their own signature style of explosive experimentation.” 

The team goes through a multitude of experiments that are related to the popular questions of the time. Remember in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” when Captain Jack Sparrow and his mate Will use a small boat to trap air so they can walk across the bottom of the ocean? Well, the myth busters tried it. And tried it again. And again. Until they proved, without a doubt, that it was a myth. They did this with hundreds of myths and legends, bringing humor and simplicity to scientific experiments. This show is the epitome of “fun for the whole family.” 

From a communication perspective, the show enlightened its viewers in the best way: humorously. The main duo of the show, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, has a comical dynamic that brings a lightheartedness to the show that many modern, reality-tv-style shows do not. Since the show is extremely entertaining, they were able to shed light on an assortment of scientific issues/theories without boring their audience or making them feel less than educated. 

Jump forward about 16 years and we get to current science television. Netflix, Disney+, and a few other streaming sites started to produce science and nature shows and documentaries. These programs allow kids, teens, adults, and the elderly to easily entreat science into their homes and minds. Some of them are simple, some are more complex, but almost all of them are educational and entertaining.

One of the more notable shows from recent years is “Our Planet.” This program explores jungles, grasslands, fresh and saltwater environments and more. It is a nature documentary series that is hosted and narrated by David Attenborough (English-speaking countries), Salma Hayek (Latin America) and Penélope Cruz (Spain). The show has brought education about how climate change impacts all biological life to a massive audience. 

The series communicates information about our planet by showing, not just telling. It showcases the beautiful habitats all around the world and explains the intricacies of the ecosystems within. It exudes a peaceful and (usually) positive feeling and is a great show to turn on for lighthearted learning. 

To wrap up modern science television, a Netflix documentary series starring actor Zac Efron and wellness expert Darin Olien was released in 2020. “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” traverses the world of sustainable, healthy, and practical living. The series follows Efron as he goes from country to country to learn more about sustainability in different areas. The “Down to Earth” website explains the show as a part travelogue and part eco-warrior series, saying that it “is a journey of deep self and cultural awareness as the star explores how the world lives, eats, prays, plays and in some cases struggles to survive.” 

The show is a fascinating way to experience and learn about what countries are doing to “go green.” With different sustainable practices and health tips throughout the entire series, you come away from it feeling refreshed and educated on how you can do your part to live sustainably. Since Efron is not a scientist, you are learning about the world with him. He interviews people who are experts and asks the simple questions that everyone has about various sustainability practices. 

Rewinding to 2004, as “Mythbusters” was in its second year of filming, a new platform for science communication began to emerge: podcasts. Specifically, science podcasts began their rise to popularity in 2004. 

In a research article published in 2019 by Lewis MacKenzie, science podcasts were found to grow linearly from 2004 to 2010 and then switched to exponential growth from 2010 to 2018. MacKenzie found that 77% of science podcasts were directed at public audiences, showing progress in science communication. 

While podcasts are mostly just audio, they are usually free to listen to. That means that science television shows combined with podcasts are making science increasingly more available to those who are not professionally-trained scientists. 

There are a few science podcasts that stand out from the rest. Podcasts such as “Science Vs.,” “Science Friday,” and “Invisibilia.”

“Science Vs.” is a unique podcast that is almost the audio version of “Mythbusters.” Their website explains that the podcast explores “takes on fads, trends, and the opinionated mob to find out what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between.” The show investigates a variety of science-focused topics. From their episode “How Science Created Morons” to “Butterflies Are Secret Monsters”, the show combines humor with popular and interesting ideas from the science community. 

“Science Friday” is an awesome podcast hosted by Ira Flatow that features professionally trained scientists and the public. The show often features listeners who call in with the science questions that enthrall them. According to “Science Friday’s” website, the podcast covers “the outer reaches of space to the tiniest microbes in our bodies.” 

The last podcast I’ll use as an example of how awesome science podcasts are isInvisibilia.” “Invisibilia” is a podcast that traverses the invisible “forces [that] control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.” The show educates the public on a wide variety of unseeable factors that affect us in our daily lives. A really interesting podcast that will excite people who are into psychology. 

Podcasts are an innovative way to communicate science. Since they do not require the listener to sit in one place and watch or read, it allows science to be much more accessible. Whether you are making your commute, cleaning your house or exercising, you can be learning more about the world around you. 

While there are many ways to learn about science, the question remains: are up-and-coming scientists being educated on communication? Many real-world scientists still struggle with communicating their area of expertise. Are science students being taught how to communicate to the general, lay public? 

For this, we look to the University of West Florida (UWF), located in Pensacola. UWF is home to around 13,000 students and is well-known for its excellent science programs. I spoke to a professor at the university to see how he is working to communicate his science and help his students do the same. 

Dr. Kwame Owusu-Daaku, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UWF, is one of the many professors encouraging science communication in their students. Owusu-Daaku studies the interactions between humans and their biophysical environment and has been in his field for around 16 years. He has been a professor at the university for about four years. 

He teaches a variety of courses, all of which fall under his field of expertise. He has an average of 70 to 80 students (combined) in his classes each semester. 

Owusu-Daaku said that communication is about “getting to know and understand your audience and conveying information in a way that meets your audience’s needs.” He uses this sentiment as a foundation for both himself and his students. When I asked him how he regulates his communication, he said that it varies depending on the environment in which he is communicating. He said he has found that when he is communicating to a live audience, he needs “to let the audience experience, and not just view or hear, [his] message.” 

He teaches a course called Environmental Science, Politics, and Policy, which has a core learning outcome meant to improve students’ communication. Specifically, their communication with non-professionally trained scientists. Owusu-Daaku said he believes “we are all scientists at our core or practicing science in some shape or form. We just need to recognize this ‘science’ in our everyday lives.” He encourages his students to think the same way to enhance their communication skills. 

A great quote that he endeavors to instill in his students is this: “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He finds that this helps students to work harder and know the scientific jargon past just the definition. He said that in addition to taking communication courses, students should also “put the learning into practice. To try and engage in presenting to K-12 students, or tabling at community events, or even speaking to their friends and family about their science and their learning. There is nothing better than actual doing to cement learning.” 

While I was researching real-world science communication, I wanted to reach out to professors and scientists alike. This led me to Michael Roberts, who is the Assistant Director of Environmental Resources in Monroe County, Florida. He has been in his field of study (limnology/wetland ecology) for 35 years and has six people under his employment. 

As the assistant director, Roberts attends many public meetings where he has to explain what he and his staff are working on that concerns the general public. I asked him what he does to improve his communication with the lay public, and he said that he minimizes “the use of field-specific scientific terms as much as possible, and explaining the meaning of those terms when using them is unavoidable.” 

Since scientists have been trained to communicate to their peers/other scientists in the past, jargon became a way to quickly convey information. Roberts said that since scientists have been trained this way, in order for the public to accept scientific findings, the information needs to be “delivered in a way that is understandable.” He said that taking the time to clarify any jargon is the best way to ensure understanding for an audience. 

I went on to ask him how he helps and advises his employees when they are faced with presenting their data and research. Roberts said that he encourages his employees to “explain issues in non-technical terms, and to not be afraid of saying/writing too much. While brief and succinct communication is valuable, when communicating to the lay public it is understanding of the topic that needs to be conveyed – so take your time.” 

One of the biggest things that scientists need to improve in their communication is transparency. When asked what steps could be taken to further improve scientific communication, Roberts said “scientists need to better explain the potential shortcomings of their research and to identify where their conclusions are data-based as opposed to theoretical or conjecture. It is important to identify the limitations in order to adequately address opposition to the findings.” However, Roberts did mention that there has been great improvement in science communication since the 1970s and 80s. 

While science communication has improved, there is still work to be done. Communicating to the general public is necessary for all facets of academia and, in many fields, has a long way to go. Literature, radio, television, and real-world scientists are doing their parts to better communicate science to the public. From TV shows like “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” to scientists like Owusu-Daaku and Roberts, science communication is being demonstrated and taught to a larger and larger audience. As Sir Mark Walport, an English medical scientist, once said, “science is not finished until it’s communicated.”