The usefulness of social media to career scientists

Recently our lab group’s journal club reviewed a paper talking about ‘Narratives of Science Outreach’ (click here for access to the full paper). Now this is particularly timely as more and more of our daily life as scientists is spent explaining what we do the general public and talking to journalists about our research. I think the main idea to come out of our journal club discussion was that social media use by scientists is the way of the future. It will increasingly be used to attract students (and hence their money) to undergraduate degrees at the ‘popular’ (read ‘social media savvy’) universities and as undergrad student numbers are what’s filling university coffers these days, scientists that can use this to their advantage will be able to write their own ticket. In today’s highly competitive university environment, where voluntary redundancies are now turning not so voluntary, do we really need any more incentive to be out there pounding the pavement justifying our mostly-taxpayer-funded jobs?

Well, I’d argue that yes we do. One ultimate benefit to having an educated general population is that politicians are forced to add knowledge of a topic and logical arguments to their soundbites for the nightly news and not just spin. As climate change becomes more and more of an imminent threat to our way of life, its important that voters understand why scrapping the Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority, replacing the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme, and  funding a multi-million dollar climate ‘consensus centre’ are not sustainable objectives for our federal politicians to support. We were able to avert one global catastrophe back in the 80’s and 90’s by replacing CFC’s in fridges and other appliances with non-ozone depleting chemicals. This achievement required years of research and hard work, political will, and an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol) to protect the planet’s ozone layer, but it is now projected that by 2050-2065 the ozone layer should return to pre-1980 levels (data from the Department of the Environment). Now, I’m not saying that minimising temperature increase due to climate change will be as easy as protecting the ozone layer, but we already know that it is possible for international will to be brought to bear on issues affecting us all. A vital first step of this process will entail us scientists increasing our ability to relate our knowledge and research directly to the general public. This may well start with talking to family and friends at BBQs about investing in solar power; discussing how Tiddalick the frog might be affected by climate change when reading bedtime stories to our kids; and letting our neighbours know how they can limit their cat’s damage to native wildlife by putting a bell on its collar, potentially preventing vulnerable bird species from being hunted to extinction. But these everyday conversations should by no means be the end of our attempts to promote science-based knowledge as essential in dealing with 21st-century life. We just have to find efficient ways to make outreach fit into our already overworked and underpaid lives as career scientists and concerned human beings.

The views expressed in this blog are the writer’s own and in no way reflect those of her lab group or the institution that she works for.

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