From Metrics to Linguistics to Comics: Some Communication-Related Highlights of the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting

Subtitled “Innovations, Information, and Imaging”, the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held 12–16 February in San Jose, California, contained many sessions on visual and other aspects of conveying scientific information. The following are highlights of some sessions that may especially interest science editors and others engaged in the communication of science.

Scientific Visualization: Collaborations Between Museums and Scientists By Claire Ronner

In science museums, visualizations are everywhere. From the traditional dinosaur diorama to hands-on activities and text displays, curators and scientists repackage complex information into easy-to-comprehend descriptions and explanations. During “Scientific Visualization: Collaborations Between Museums and Scientists”, three seasoned museum communicators shared their innovative ways of approaching the depiction of scientific data.

At the Boston Museum of Science, Carol Lynn Alpert and the Amazing Nano Brothers tackled the “invisible, murky world of atoms and electrons” in an unexpected way: through juggling. A volunteer held a glow-in-the-dark balloon “nucleus” while the Brothers juggled “electrons” back and forth. Alpert said such a display reaches students in ways that textbooks cannot.

Toshi Komatsu agrees. Komatsu, director of digital theaters at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, incorporates storytelling when writing text to accompany the Hall’s 2-meter “Science on a Sphere” display. The museum can project a variety of information on the sphere, from ocean currents to seismologic activity and climate-change patterns. Komatsu uses the narrative to tie science into the real world, “never dumbing it down but rather making it more interpretable for the public.”

For Julie Urban and her colleagues at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, visualization isn’t just another obligation—it’s a key component of their research. The museum’s research laboratories are enclosed in glass and completely visible to the public, blurring the distinction between scientists and visitors. “The public participation is shaping our science,” said Urban. “We think a lot about how involving citizens in science changes how they think about science, but it changes how scientists think about science, too.”

Engagement with Intent? Scientists’ Views of Communication and Why It Matters By Roberto Molar-Candanosa

Science-communication experts say that now more than ever scientists need to engage with the public. But what are scientists’ views on public engagement, and what are their goals when they communicate? A panel of experts discussed those and other questions in the session “Engagement with Intent? Scientists’ Views of Communication and Why it Matters”. Panelists presented survey findings and insights from academic and professional experience in science communication.

Anthony Dudo, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Texas–Austin, presented preliminary findings from surveys conducted in 2012–2014 by AAAS and other entities. Findings suggest that, contrary to a common belief, many scientists care about and participate in public engagement. Those scientists, Dudo said, communicate mainly to inform the public and to correct misconceptions when the mass media cover science inaccurately. He also said that some scientists communicate to spark public interest in science and to nurture public trust.

Brooke Smith, of Portland, Oregon-based COMPASS (an organization that trains scientists to communicate with the public), shared similar insights from a professional perspective. Scientists generally contact COMPASS, she said, to learn to communicate with the public in a clear, concise, engaging way. Smith also explained that COMPASS trainees sometimes struggle when they have to communicate about their science in general terms and when they explain their fields’ importance to the public.

Jeanne Braha, of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, said some scientists also seek to understand public concerns. However, she noted, scientists’ demanding schedules often limit their participation in public engagement and some scientists also feel “too junior” to communicate with the public.

Comics, Zombies, and Hip-Hop: Leveraging Pop Culture for Science Engagement By Gina Marie Wadas

Move over, textbooks, PowerPoints, and lectures. Make room for the popular-culture worlds of comics, zombies, and hip-hop in K–12 classrooms. In lieu of traditional teaching techniques, such people as Judy Diamond, Julius Diaz Panoriñgan, and Tom McFadden are expanding the outreach of science engagement by implementing alternative routes to educate young students.

Diamond, of the University of Nebraska State Museum, is involved in the comic-book series World of Viruses Biology of Human, funded by the National Institutes of Health. The series are available as a free app at Apple or worldofviruses.unl.edu. In the World of Viruses series, the aim is to teach students the anatomy and physiology of viruses, not just the diseases associated with them. “The goal is to create a spark because from a spark of interest many things can happen,” said Diamond. Sociologists evaluating the use of the science comics showed that students who read them were five times more likely to remember the information than those who read science essays.

Music was the common ground that helped McFadden, a middle-school teacher at Nueva School in California, to connect with his students. He works with them to create and perform hip-hop songs about science history. “It’s partly about music, partly about hip hop, but mostly about creative confidence.” During the session, one of McFadden’s students said of his teaching technique, “It’s a lot of fun. If I am able to write a verse, it means I know this stuff I am writing about.”

Panoriñgan, a member of 826LA, a nonprofit tutoring program in writing, uses such activities as zombie tag to teach concepts in epidemiology. The game demonstrates the proliferation of diseases, control, and prevention as students try to avoid exposure to “zombieitis”. To help his students to identify and understand the concepts, Panoriñgan incorporates epidemiologic topics that are ethnically and economically relevant to his students.

Metrics for Science Policy and Policy for Metrics By Sara Carney

“Research has become too complex to be run on intuition,” said Paul Wouters, director of the Center for Science and Technology Studies in Leiden, Netherlands. Wouters began the “Metrics for Science Policy and Policy for Metrics” session by discussing why metrics are used. Among reasons that he cited were the increased complexity and specialization of science and increased competition for funding.

Scientific journals have become gatekeepers, stated Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO [European Molecular Biology Organization] Journal. Journals tend to choose some types of submissions, such as papers in high-citing fields and review articles, more than others. Those decisions can ultimately influence who gets funding and whose career advances, Pulverer said. Specifically, he mentioned the attention given to the journal impact factor, which reflects how widely a journal is cited. Often, the impact factor is erroneously assumed to indicate a journal’s quality and thus the quality of the articles that the journal publishes, he said.

Pulverer emphasized the need to reflect current research more accurately by moving beyond current metrics. Metricians should consider such factors as how much mentoring someone does and how many data the person produces, he said. He also suggested changing the citation culture, using more diverse metrics, and providing incentives for increased participation in the peer-review process.

At the university level, such variables as enrollment and ranking are focused on, said Susan E Cozzens, vice provost for graduate education and faculty affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Metrics on publications can also be important to universities because publications build careers and recognize scientific achievements, she stated.

From Art to Mathematics: A Visual Mode of Communication By Iveliz Martel

Speakers at the session “From Art to Mathematics: A Visual Mode of Communication” showed how artwork can engage people in mathematics and communicate scientific concepts.

George Hart, of Stony Brook University, showed photographs of large mathematical sculptures that he created with shapes that were laser cut from such materials as wood, acrylic, and metal. The sculptures show balance, symmetry, and other concepts. “Math can be beautiful and creative. Math is not just for science and engineering or counting,” Hart said. “It is a tool that can be used with everything, including art and design.”

Hart also shared his experience in conducting workshops in which groups of people assemble geometric sculptures. He said that those activities “really create a community” and offer opportunities “to informally educate” people in mathematics.

Andrea Hawksley, of SAP Labs, explained how to make mathematically related models using everyday materials such as plastic sunglasses or hair ties. She described how dancing can also communicate mathematical concepts. “I find that [mathematical dance] is really helpful for people who otherwise are very intimidated by mathematics,” she said. Moreover, Hawksley showed that by doing easy activities—such as preparing lemonade with different proportions of lemon juice, sugar, and food color— students can learn about the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio.

Henry Segerman, of Oklahoma State University, explained how to make 4-dimensional objects. He said that a good way to visualize the objects is to project their shadows onto a wall. He showed spheres and polytopes —geometric figures defined by lines and planes—in 4-dimensional spaces. Segerman explained that visualizing mathematical objects can contribute to pedagogy by exposing people to new ideas.

During the session, attendees had chances to touch 3- and 4-dimensional objects, try to make figures using hair ties, and move in the room to convey mathematical patterns.

The Science of Grammar and Vice Versa By Katelyn Werner

Data: plural or singular? Your response to that question may say a lot about your field of study. Geoffrey Nunberg, professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and radio guest on NPR’s Fresh Air, addressed the subject in his lunch-hour talk, “The Science of Grammar and Vice Versa”––which he later titled, “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Linguists”.

Chuckling audience in tow, Nunberg presented his findings on “The Great Data Kerfuffle”, arguing that the debated use of data is in fact a systematic choice. How one uses data is not a “badge of belonging” nor a sign that writers are “slaves to style guides”. Rather, each use reflects “tacit conceptual distinctions”.

In a familiar scientific manner, Nunberg began with a hypothesis: The difference in plurality is intentional. He then tested his hypothesis with case studies, content analyses of journals and style guides, and a comparison of how different languages treat count and noncount nouns (e.g., dog vs milk).

His verdict: Data is used as singular (noncountable) when “drawing broad conclusions” from results and as plural (countable) when interacting “one-on-one” with specific collected items. This finding explains differences in usage between fields in that natural sciences speak more about individual data and social and computer sciences tend to refer to the whole data batch.

Nunberg mused that linguistics is often misunderstood. His discussion of data spoke to the usefulness and complexity of the discipline: “Language is ultimately wedded to reality, . . . but it’s a very rocky marriage.”

Using Cartoons to Convey Science By Sara Carney

If you seek to communicate science in a way that is fun and engaging, cartoons may be the way to go. At the session “Using Cartoons to Convey Science”, science cartoonist Larry Gonick said that cartoons tell a story that resonates with the viewer. He defined cartoons as simple drawings that convey complex information and noted that comics have an advantage over animation in that viewers can look at the panels side by side to see the concept broken down.

Anthropomorphism is a pitfall of cartoons, said Gonick. Although some anthropomorphism is needed to tell a story, some accuracy is sacrificed, he said. As an example, Gonick showed a cartoon of an enzyme breaking down a protein. If eyes are added to the enzyme, it can appear excited to chomp down on the protein and then look relieved when finished. The story is appealing, but the viewer must remember that enzymes do not have eyes.

Cartoons are fun and exciting while also being low tech and cheap to make, said psychologist Barbara Tversky, of Stanford University and Columbia University Teachers College. She also discussed the value of cartooning in the classroom to help students to understand and retain scientific concepts. Manu Prakash, a faculty member in bioengineering at Stanford University, said one need not be a professional artist to participate in cartoon-making. Prakash recounted his experience in recording himself cartooning to create an engaging and informative presentation. Cartooning is a way for people to experience science, he said.

Scientists Engaging with Reporters, the Public, and Social Media: Survey Findings By Gina Marie Wadas

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 3,784 US-based scientists who were members of AAAS. Results presented at the session “Scientists Engaging with Reporters, the Public, and Social Media: Survey Findings” regarded how scientists interact with journalists and the public and how much they use socialmedia outlets to discuss their work.

Some 87% of respondents indicated they should be involved in scientific publicpolicy discussions. “Dialog is critical,” said session panelist Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology and environmental studies at Stanford University. “We need to be willing to enter into a long-term dialog with all the stakeholders: community, scientists, and policy makers.”

The survey findings also suggest that nearly all scientists engage with the public in some way and that most believe that there is a lack of knowledge about science among the public. Respondents indicated that media outlets do not report on science topics well enough and oversimplify findings.

Panelist Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, discussed the use of social media by scientists. “There is an increased use of social media and an understanding of the important role that they play, but they are not yet the norm,” Brossard said. She suggested that reasons that scientists are not using social media are that they are too busy, do not know how to use them, or believe that their research is uninteresting to the public. She also said that scientists benefit from using social media because they increase the likelihood that their work is cited, bringing more attention to it.

The full survey report can be accessed at www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/02/PI_PublicEngagementbyScientists_021515.pdf.

Communicating Science: A Seminar By Christina B Sumners

The AAAS meeting included a two-part “Communicating Science” seminar. The first session, “Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues”, used climate change as a case study to explore, from both scientists’ and journalists’ perspectives, communication of potentially controversial views to the public.

Noah S Diffenbaugh, a climate researcher at Stanford University, spoke from a scientist’s perspective. Although noting that he is most familiar with communicating through peer-reviewed publications, he said that he also feels a responsibility to share his science with the public inasmuch as it ultimately foots the bill for his largely government-funded research. Diffenbaugh sees himself as the person in the conversation “focused only on evidence” and said that it is important for scientists to make “policy-relevant”, not “policy-prescriptive”, contributions. He cautioned that once scientists “cross the advocacy line,” they risk losing their credibility. However, Diffenbaugh also said that those risks are small compared with the opportunity cost; time spent in public engagement is time not spent in research or writing articles for peerreviewed journals.

Lisa Krieger, a science writer with the San Jose Mercury News, shared a journalist’s perspective on how to communicate challenging scientific issues to the public. One of the most important things, she noted, is that simply throwing more information and more statistics at the audience doesn’t work. Instead, she places herself in the reader’s position and asks, “What is it, and why should we care?” The answer is to make the story compelling, make it local, and explain what it means to the reader’s home, job, or family.

The second session, “Public Engagement for Scientists: Realities, Risks, and Rewards”, delved deeper into aspects of scientists’ public-engagement activities. Session moderator Bruce V Lewenstein, professor of science communication at Cornell University, said that public engagement in science encompasses multiple types of initiatives:

  • Educational engagement aims to excite people about science and possibly teach them something at the same time.
  • Participatory democracy suggests that “science is embedded in our social system” and that the public can or should have some authority over science as an institution.
  • Citizen science aims to engage people by involving them in scientific research.
  • Institutional engagement refers to efforts of individual organizations to engender public loyalty.

Several presenters offered their experience with such initiatives. Heidi Ballard, professor in the University of California, Davis School of Education, discussed her experience with citizen science, noting that the process must be a “two-way street” and that a communicative, transparent, respectful relationship between scientists and public participants leads to the most fruitful and effective projects. Ballard described several types of citizen science, ranging from contributory (in which the public participates only in collecting or categorizing data) to co-created (in which community organizations work with scientists to develop and execute entire projects).

Anthony Dudo shared key results from recent survey research. His findings echoed several points that Diffenbaugh had made. He also noted that scientists are not equally equipped to engage with the public but that those who do engage tend to share similar attitudes, orientation toward (mass) media, and support from their colleagues.

Videos from the seminar can be accessed at meetings.aaas.org/live-video-stream/#x.

Turning a Science Crisis into a Communication Opportunity By Barbara Gastel

Science-related crises pose public-communication challenges. Yet, handled well, they can increase favorable visibility. Three cases in this regard were the focus of “Turning a Science Crisis into a Communication Opportunity”, organized and moderated by Katie Yurkewicz, of Fermi National Acceleratory Laboratory.

The first case regarded the unlikely finding that neutrinos had traveled faster than light. When word reached journalists before the planned scholarly announcement, much mass-media attention followed; later, evidence emerged that the observation was an artifact. Speaker Antonella Varaschin, of Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), said that the coverage increased awareness of neutrinos, helped to show the process of science, and promoted research.

The second case regarded a small radiation leak at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC). Mass-media coverage was extensive and angry. Speaker Saeko Okada, of Japan’s High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), said that those involved learned that journalists need information quickly and that emotion matters. She said that the interactions have increased coverage of research in J-PARC and KEK.

In the third case, a high-school teacher’s claim that the Large Hadron Collider would cause a black hole engendered widespread public attention. Speaker Stephanie Hills, of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said that the facility responded to every mass-media inquiry. As shown in a video clip at the session, coverage by The Daily Show vividly helped to debunk the claim.

Summing up, Yurkewicz emphasized that “you absolutely must engage critics.” Doing so during crises, the session showed, can promote effective science communication.

The 2015 AAAS meeting also included a session, “Integrity of Science”, that focused on a US National Academies report being prepared on the subject. An account of this session, which contained discussion of integrity in scientific publication, appeared in the January–March 2015 issue of Science Editor.

Audio recordings of most sessions of the 2015 AAAS annual meeting and video recordings of some sessions are available; for information, see www.aaas.org/AM2015. The next AAAS annual meeting (theme: “Global Science Engagement”) will take place 11–15 February 2016 in Washington, DC.