The 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting: Some Highlights of Sessions on Communication of Science

Titled “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society”, the 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, held on 16–20 February in Vancouver, British Columbia, included sessions related to science editing and other aspects of science communication. Among the themes of those sessions were increasing international access to electronic information, helping the public to envision effects of climate change, improving peer review, and using pop-culture icons in popular communication of science. The following are some highlights.

Innovations in Reducing International Knowledge Isolation, Jessica Orwig

For some, the Internet has helped to create a flat world where equal access and opportunity are just a click away. But about twothirds of the world’s population has little or no access to current, high-quality scientific literature through online scientific journals, said Charles Dunlap, of CRDF Global. The lack of access is part of a phenomenon called international knowledge isolation.

The session “Innovations in Reducing International Knowledge Isolation” was moderated by a pioneer of the Internet, Vinton Cerf. Speakers from a variety of settings discussed virtual libraries and open-access databases that are growing in popularity and expanding international communication within the academic world.

First to speak was Dunlap, who discussed the considerable increases in activity of the Iraq Virtual Science Library. When the library was established in 2006, it had about 1000 users. The number grew to 30,000 by 2011.

The Iraq Virtual Science Library is an open-access database. Leslie Chan, of the University of Toronto Scarborough, argued that open access, if more broadly implemented, could substantially reduce the knowledge gap between developed and developing countries. One advantage of open-access journals, Chan said, is the opportunity for research sharing among countries around the world, which could initiate new and improved methods of scientific research.

John Willinsky, of Stanford University, discussed online databases that house open-access articles. One project, Open Journal Systems, acts as both a publishing platform and a resource where viewers can access scholarly material from multiple journals in multiple languages.

Gilbert S Omenn, of the University of Michigan, discussed a database that has thousands of PowerPoint presentations created and shared by 48,000 scientists in 174 countries. The database—known as the Supercourse of Epidemiology, the Internet and Global Health—is targeted to teachers around the world, who can access information on various diseases. When the swine influenza epidemic peaked in 2009 in the United States, a particular H1N1 lecture in the database was accessed by an average of 8,847 people per day.

Alex Dehgan, of the US Agency for International Development, predicted that an increase in the socioeconomic stratification of such countries as Brazil, India, and China will lead to a tremendous strain on energy and food consumption. Therefore, Dehgan said, those countries need to prepare for future hardships through the innovative use of science, technology, and engineering. Ready availability of scientific literature is key to this preparation, Dehgan said.

Beyond Climate Models: Rethinking How to Envision the Future with Climate Change, Jessica Orwig

Shades of red dotted the United States as Mike Hulme, of the University of East Anglia, pointed to a figure and said, “The future is color coded, and the color code is red for danger.”

To an audience of scientists, the message of this figure may seem vivid. However, technical graphs and charts tend to make nonacademics’ eyes glaze over, noted John Robinson, of the University of British Columbia, who moderated the session “Beyond Climate Models: Rethinking How to Envision the Future with Climate Change”.

Graphs and charts might not be helping the public to heed or even acknowledge climate change. Speakers at the session therefore discussed alternative approaches to engage and educate the public. The approaches include interactive Web-based tools for Google Earth and immersive Decision Theatres.

After showing the figure, Hulme proposed a corollary: Climate change communication should integrate the arts and humanities more. As he showed drawings of fictitious cities built on water and photographs of water-surrounded polar bears, Hulme said that such approaches as narrative and art could lead to more effective engagement of the public.

Richard Moss, of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, proposed the use of scenarios. He showed time-lapse photographs of shorelines expanding and flooding nearby environments as examples of scenarios that portray potential effects of climate change.

Moss emphasized promoting communication between the scientific community and the public. “I think there is a tremendous opportunity for us to bring these worlds together without having lost anything from either side,” Moss said. If the scientific community can communicate uncertainties in climate modeling through flexible scenarios, Moss said, the gap that separates the public from the scientists may be bridged.

The third speaker, Stephen Sheppard, of the University of British Columbia, discussed ways of exciting public interest through interactive and visual media. With the use of Decision Theatres—which have near-panoramic screens that immerse the audience—and Virtual Globes, such as are provided by Google Earth, visualizations are expected to be more influential.

Sheppard said that the visualizations make climate change more real and therefore can have a greater effect. Moreover, he presented results of research that suggest that 3-D visuals can increase a population’s awareness and understanding of climate change and its environmental effects.

After the set of presentations, the audience members were asked to meet in groups to discuss the various approaches proposed—an apt ending for a session that emphasized engagement!

Global Challenges to Peer Review of Scientific Publications, Manjusha Sala

Why is peer review important? How is it conducted? What are some concerns about the peer-review process? How does peer review determine funding of projects? Those were some questions addressed at the session “Global Challenges to Peer Review of Scientific Publications”, moderated by Leonor Sierra, international science and policy manager at Sense About Science, a nonprofit organization helping people “make sense of science and evidence”.

Emilie Marcus, editor of Cell and CEO of Cell Press; Linda Miller, dean for basic sciences of New York University; and Chris Biemesderfer, of the American Astronomical Society, spoke.

After summarizing how peer review is done at Cell Press, Marcus focused on concerns expressed about the peer-review process. They included conflicts of interest and reviewer bias. As a solution, Marcus said, authors submitting papers to Cell Press can rule out up to three potential reviewers. Marcus described several models of peer review: single blind, double blind, and open. In single-blind peer review, the reviewers know the identity of the authors but not vice versa; in double-blind review, neither group knows the other group’s identity; and in open peer review, both groups know each other’s identity. “Open peer review, in my opinion, compromises or can compromise constructive criticism,” Marcus said.

Marcus and Biemesderfer also addressed the fact that peer review can slow scientific dissemination. Biemesderfer said that a culture of preprints of papers exists in a number of physical sciences, including astronomy. Because preprints aid in rapid dissemination of the latest research, he said, in some fields there is little concern about this.

Miller compared peer review for publication and peer review for funding. Currently, she said, two models for determining funding are in practice in the United States: the National Institutes of Health funds projects, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) funds people.

To overcome challenges to and dissatisfactions with peer review, Miller suggested the following: Use HHMI’s “people funding” model and open peer review. She said that Japan and parts of Europe used the HHMI model in the 20th century. Their governments released the money to institutes, which gave the money to researchers. That model attracted young scientists who had promising projects and created a hierarchic system.

Open peer review, Miller said, has been successfully used by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. The process begins with the posting of the paper online. Researchers in the field then post their comments, which are followed by comments from the authors of the paper. After several revisions, the final version of the paper is published on the Web site. Open peer review can reduce bias, Miller said.

Among them, the speakers presented a variety of perspectives on peer review. The session closed with discussion from the standing room-only audience.

Using Pop-Culture Icons to Slip Science into the Mainstream, Alejandra Arreola-Triana

When Lawrence Krauss, Jim Kakalios, and E Paul Zehr need to sneak science into a conversation, they talk about Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, Spiderman, or Batman, they noted at the session “Using PopCulture Icons to Slip Science into the Mainstream”.

“The secret in teaching, and that includes public education”, said Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, “is seduction.” He said that the key to catching people’s attention is to persuade them that their interests—for example, science fiction— are related to the science that one wants to communicate. “Once they find out that science relates to the things they are interested in”, Krauss said, “they get fascinated, and then the questions continue.”

Krauss uses the “wacky” universes in science fiction as a hook to get people to learn about the real universe, which is “far more interesting”.

Kakalios, who won a regional Emmy Award for the video The Science of Watchmen, stated that comic books can be used to teach science. He said that the comics from the late 1950s were “jam-packed with science”. He noted several examples of the science in those comics, which in some cases can be “more exciting than what you get in your textbooks”.

Kakalios, who has also been a science adviser for several superhero movies, including Watchmen and The Amazing Spiderman, said that using popular culture to teach science allows him to communicate to a wider audience. He said that his Watchmen video has allowed him to reach more people than he could if he “taught a thousand students a year for 17 centuries”.

Zehr, author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, uses superheroes as a way of explaining physiology and neuroscience. He said that the advantage of using references to superheroes or popular shows is that it puts the scientists and the audience “in the same head space”. The approach could aid in translating science into something “meaningful to the people once they are already hooked,” he stated. Zehr emphasized that such translation does not mean just reducing the things to a simple reading level; rather, it includes describing the science in terms and contexts that the audience already understands.