From Open Access, to Twitter, to Science Fiction, to Film: Some Communication-Related Highlights of the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting

Subtitled “Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation”, the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held 13–17 February in Chicago, contained numerous sessions on meeting challenges in communicating science. Sessions addressed communication with a variety of audiences, including scientists, journalists, and segments of the public. They also dealt with such channels as publications, presentations, and social media. The following are highlights of some of the sessions.

Scholarly Publishing Innovations and Evolution: Views of the Stakeholders, Mary Beth Schaefer

The push for open access to published research could pit researcher against publisher against librarian, but as a panel of presenters at the AAAS annual meeting showed, a symbiotic relationship might be the key to granting full public access to scholarly publications.

The symposium “Scholarly Publishing Innovations and Evolution: Views of the Stakeholders” took place just 2 days after AAAS announced plans to release its first fully open-access journal, Science Advances. The presenters, each speaking from a different perspective, had served together on the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, a group that spoke to Congress and other federal components in 2009 to gain support for open access. At the symposium, they described the origins and progress of this movement and the challenges that it faced.

John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities, described policies and programs promoting open access and the research university’s stance. Crispin Taylor, executive director of the American Society of Plant Biologists, an organization whose operating revenues depend largely on its journals, presented a business perspective. To grant open access, the organization’s business model must shift to rely on other sources of revenue.

Scott Plutchak, of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, offered views and experiences of libraries regarding open access. Affordability, he said, is a primary concern, as library budgets struggle to keep up with costs of publications. Some librarians’ misconceptions of publishers have led to bitterness among stakeholders. Plutchak stressed the need to “move past the open access war” and work collaboratively toward a solution.

Communicating Science: A Seminar, Christina Sumners

The AAAS meeting included a day-long seminar “Communicating Science”, which was broken into sessions. In the first, “Engaging with Journalists”, science journalist Carl Zimmer, who has written for The New York Times, said the nature of science reporting has changed. To illustrate, he noted that Stephen Hawking recently posted on the Internet a two-page article, which was soon written about in Nature, New Scientist, and other publications. Although most articles posted online won’t get the coverage of one by Hawking, Zimmer asked the audience to consider what happens when the traditional methods of peer review are not used: How can science journalists know what is “good” enough to report on?

It is increasingly difficult to know what is sound science, said panelist Paula Apsell, executive producer of NOVA. However, Zimmer said, peer review is still the benchmark that most science journalists use for identifying sound science, although there are situations, such as the Hawking paper, in which research comes out in its raw form and journalists and their editors must decide what to do with it. Scientific and medical journals can help reporters by providing information about their upcoming peer-reviewed articles well before publication, because reporters need time to pitch the stories to their editors.

Another communicating-science session, “Engaging with Social Media”, focused on how scientists can best use the new platforms to share their research. Kim Cobb, a faculty member in earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, shared her experiences with social media. She noted that scientists are often uncomfortable with nontraditional self-promotion and tend to love caveats— which generally do not work well on social media. Furthermore, each piece of research is only an incremental change in the body of knowledge, she said, and it can be difficult to communicate nuance or the importance of each small step through social media. Overall, though, Cobb was optimistic and offered tips for those trying to communicate science over social media: Make it personal, tell a story, and use humor. Most important: Use as many photos as you can.

Also at that session, Danielle N Lee, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and blogger for Scientific American, said that many underserved groups get most of or all their news and information from social media, so it may be the best way to reach them. Her practical advice? Search the name of the field of interest and something like “top twitter” to get a good list of people to follow. Once a Twitter account has followers, it is important to publish regularly and engage in conversations with readers.

Videos from this seminar can be accessed at www.aaas.org/page/2014-annual-meetingcommunicating-science-seminar.

Getting Started in Social Media, Sara Carney

You’ve picked out your Twitter handle and Facebook profile picture. Now what? Social media can be a great way to reach a large and diverse audience but can be intimidating at first. The presenters of “Getting Started in Social Media” described how newcomers can get the most out of Twitter, Facebook, and blogging.

Bethany Brookshire, a blogger at Science News, discussed Twitter, which provides minute-by-minute updates, including links to new articles from around the Internet. To enhance your Twitter experience, Brookshire recommends following not just your friends but organizations and news outlets that interest you. Replying to tweets, retweeting, and using a hashtag (a word or phrase that follows the “#” symbol, which is used as a searchable metadata tag) will allow you to contribute on trending topics and increase your profile visibility. Brookshire reminded the audience that tweets are limited to 140 characters, which is great for those good at one-liners but can be challenging.

It would be hard to discuss social media without mentioning Facebook. Christie Wilcox, a blogger at Discover Blogs, noted that Facebook contains two major types of profiles—personal timelines and public pages. Timelines, which have a wide array of privacy settings, are typically used for networking and connecting with friends. By adjusting your privacy settings, you can let people other than your Facebook friends follow your timeline. In contrast, public pages are generally used for organizations and public figures. One benefit of having a page is that you can monitor trends in popularity and thus tailor content to your audience.

What if you want to write more than 140 characters and don’t “like” Facebook? Blogger at Scientific American Danielle N Lee recommends using blogging for more indepth science writing. Blogs can be used to showcase one’s writing and give readers more detailed updates. However, blogging can be time consuming. Lee recommends blogging frequently or not at all. Alternatives for those not ready for such a commitment, Lee said, include contributing guest posts and comments to existing blogs.

All the presenters emphasized that the content posted to social-media sites is not necessarily private. And they warned that “trolls” (people who cause intentional disruption) should be deleted “early and often”. Despite those concerns, all endorsed social media as useful additions to the array of tools for communicating science.

Where’s My Flying Car? Science, Science Fiction, and a Changing Vision of the Future, Jessica Scarfuto

Given the session’s focus on the future of science and technology, it was ironic that the session began 20 minutes late because of technical difficulties. Nevertheless, the session provided thought-provoking points on the interplay of science, science fiction, and the future of technology.

The speakers, who included both scientists and science-fiction authors, addressed topics as varied as astrophysics, artificial intelligence, robots, and the environment. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and science writer who is a professor at Arizona State University, spoke on the technologies of time travel, warp drive, teleportation, and space travel. “The Star Trek writers say you’d be turned into chunky salsa on the back of the spacecraft because g forces would kill you,” he said, explaining why events will not occur as imagined in science fiction. “The way we’re going to travel through space, if humans survive, will be with slow ships that take a long time and never come back.”

Following Krauss was award-winning science-fiction author Catherine Asaro, who discussed artificial intelligence and the possibility of “genius machines” as computer technology continues to advance. Exploring the philosophical question of what makes something alive or even human, she reflected on ethical dilemmas posed by using technology to advance human abilities.

David H Grinspoon, astrobiologist and the first Baruch S Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, discussed the interplay of science and science fiction as related to the possible presence of life elsewhere in the universe. “Our idea that life has to be in the ‘habitable zone’ is rather skeptical and closed minded,” he said. “It’s a fine way to make life, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere out there nature has cooked up a completely different way of doing it.”

The session ended with a talk by sciencefiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson stressed the importance of scientists’ involvement in politics and discussed what might occur next in Earth’s ecological evolution if we keep following political and economic approaches that do not reflect true costs.

A recurrent theme in the session was that science fiction contributes substantially by inspiring countless young people to become interested in science—an important contribution regardless of whether science fiction predicts the future.

Promoting Science through Storytelling: A Case Study, Gina Marie Wadas

137 Films, a nonprofit documentary production company, emphasizes the people involved in science, and not the science itself, to promote science through storytelling. “Scientists are not just talking fact sheets,” stated Executive Director Clayton Brown. “Scientists are people.”

Brown and Artistic Director Monica Ross of 137 Films, with Kurt Riesselmann, head of the office of public information at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), spoke about their collaboration on the science documentary Science at Work. They discussed how the use of storytelling in science documentaries, by emphasizing characterization, can promote science and the public’s understanding of science. The film portrays the home and work lives of the people behind the science done at Fermilab.

Speakers at the session said 137 Films wants its audience to see that scientists are not so different from everyone else. Its documentaries provide only as much science as needed to tell the story. Narration is purposely not included. Therefore, animations, subtitles, and captions are provided for clarification, as are analogies by those featured in the film.

The hope of 137 Films is to display the aspects of science that the public does not see but should know about. Those aspects include the amount of preparation needed for a project, the hopes and fears of the scientists, and what scientists experience when funding for their projects is canceled.

Documentaries are “a halfway point between fiction and research papers,” Brown said. Brown and Ross emphasized that storytelling is important for science. They want their documentaries not to provide the public with answers but to promote discussion and show science in action.

Communicating with the Naked Scientists: A Live Podcast, Mary Beth Schaefer

“At night I strip off my clothes and become the naked scientist.” With those words, British radio personality Chris Smith exposed himself as creator of the BBC’s award-winning podcast “The Naked Scientists”. Smith moderated the AAAS special event “Communicating with the Naked Scientists: A Live Podcast”, during which a panel of science communicators held a Q&A session attended by researchers, educators, and science journalists.

The Naked Scientists are a group of researchers at Cambridge University who, according to their Web site, “strip science down to its bare essentials, and promote it to the general public” through various media. Smith and the other panel members answered questions about this “promotion of science” to various audiences. Some of their responses are summarized here.

Q: “How do you communicate the benefits of emerging technologies like robotics when we don’t fully understand what they’ll be used for and how they’ll work yet?”

According to panelists, science-fiction books, movies, and television shows often inspire new technologies and let readers experience emerging scientific innovations. Robyn Williams, a broadcast science journalist in Australia, suggested that letting people experience science firsthand through demonstrations and displays is another strategy to promote understanding. Molly Jahn, of the University of Wisconsin, and Kathleen Kennedy, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mentioned that middle-school and high-school robotics programs are also good ways to introduce children to emerging technologies.

Q: “How do we move forward in communicating science to a public that still questions its most basic foundations?”

Panel members approached this question from different angles. Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, questioned whether the public’s belief in evolution matters, inasmuch as it might not affect people’s daily lives. David Willetts, British minister of state for universities and science, focused on education policy that dictates the teaching of evolution or creationism. With regard to education, a boundary must be drawn between religion and science, he said.

Q: “Climate-change deniers often use the tools of propaganda to further their campaign. Should science be embracing similar tools?”

The panelists seemed to agree that propaganda would not make sense for the communication of science, in that science is based on reason, not faith. Some hinted that the strategy being used to communicate climate change, however, could be made more effective. Williams acknowledged that the fight between deniers of climate change and scientists is not balanced. “I think it’s time the scientists really got up, didn’t use propaganda, but used short, sharp sentences and fought equally,” he said.

To hear the rest of the panel’s advice, you can listen to a free recording of the session on The Naked Scientists Web site, www.thenakedscientists.com.

The AAAS annual meeting included many other sessions on communicating science in addition to dozens of sessions on scientific topics and issues. The session “Building National Capacity in Science Communication for STEM Graduate Students” focused largely on public communication of science; it included presentation of a rubric for assessing oral-presentation skills. Another session, “Teen Cafés: Innovative Model for Effective Science Communication with Key Demographic”, included descriptions of science-outreach activities for teenagers, advice on arranging such activities, and information on the Teen Science Café Network (teensciencecafe.org). A variety of career workshops—such as “AuthorAID: A Service to Use and a Chance to Serve” and “Editing Your Own Papers and Proposals: How to Wow Reviewers and Aid Readers”—addressed practical aspects of the communication of science.

In a plenary lecture to a standing-roomonly audience, Alan Alda offered advice on communicating science to general audiences. Best known as an actor in television and film, Alda hosted for 13 years the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers; he now is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In his lecture, titled “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science”, Alda emphasized the importance of storytelling in engaging one’s audience; accordingly, he incorporated multiple anecdotes. He also emphasized understanding the audience, distilling one’s message, avoiding jargon, and including emotion. Information that is conveyed through emotionally charged stories, he observed, tends to be remembered.

An account of Alda’s presentation can be accessed at www.aaas.org/news/alanalda-good-communication-can-keep-scientistsand-public-committed-relationship. Audio recordings of many sessions of the AAAS meeting are available; for information, please see www.dcprovidersonline.com/aaas/. The next AAAS annual meeting (theme: “Innovations, Information, and Imaging”) will take place 12–16 February 2015 in San Jose, California.