On April 22 scientists around the world are downing microscopes, pipettes and lasers and declaring it’s time take a public stand and be counted. Standing shoulder to shoulder with their scientific kindred, they’ll raise fists to the sky, united with one voice and shouting “science is… [insert message here]!”
The question is: what is the message?
We appreciate it’s hard to combine diffuse and complicated ideas about the modern relationship between science and society into one straightforward message. As science writer Ed Yong has pointed out, scientists seem to be planning to march for as many as 21 different things, including:
- Celebrating passion for science and the ways science serves our communities
- Encouraging the public to value, invest, appreciate and engage with science
- Encouraging scientists to share their research
- Encouraging scientists to listen to the wider public
- Affirming science as a vital feature of a working democracy
- Showing that science is a human process
- Calling for robust funding
- Advocating for open and accessible science, and so on.
Others have boiled these down to four core points: a support for universal science literacy; open communication of scientific results; better use of science in policy; and a more stable investment environment for science.
More personal reflections on these can be found in the March for Science Facebook page. These include personal stories of disease survival thanks to science, stories of science transforming lives and of science transforming communities around them.
These are all valid points, and important for us inside the scientific community to recognise.
But imagine a reporter sifting through these various points trying to find the story on April 23. What pictures do scientists want the rest of the world to see? What headlines do we want the world’s newspapers to write? What do we want to achieve with this march?
In short, what specifically do we really really want people to be talking about the next day?
Now we need to turn that into one simple, direct, plain-language sentence. No jargon, no caveats or butt-covering. Just one short, straightforward sentence that’ll make other people listen and care. If we can’t do it, how could someone reporting on us be expected to?
Seven tactical suggestions
It’s a likely that the images and headlines that will be used to describe the march will be chosen by various media outlets to suit their particular agenda. Stories, images and headlines will be chosen that journalists and editors believe will be the most likely to engage their readers.
This means that complicated and nuanced points may be ignored in favour of simplicity and drama. It’s up to us to try to influence the media to cover what we think is most important.
So here are some tips for how to do just this.
- Don’t show off about your scientific knowledge. This isn’t the time to demonstrate how terribly clever you are, or how much scientific jargon you can spout. Don’t put that stuff on a sign or a T-shirt. It can be alienating and (in this explicitly public forum) it’s condescending as hell.
- Do write your messages in everyday terms. Avoid jargon and use everyday language.
- Don’t “dress up” as a scientist, dress as a citizen. If your goal is to show that science matters to everyone, try looking like everyone.
- Do talk about how you can help and about what science can do for others, but not about what others should do for science. Even with the best of intentions, protesters demanding things of other people can come off looking myopic and self-serving. This is a great way to get people offside.
- Don’t pick fights (either verbal, physical or metaphorical) with people who you think are dumb, wrong, dangerous or unpleasant. Now is not the time to try to “correct” the misconceptions and “woo” of people who might not be as scientifically informed as you. Assuming you want to have a positive influence on people, barking at other people is only going to emphasise the conflict itself, not focus people on your message(s).
- But do stick to your guns. Appealing to broader interests doesn’t have to mean pandering to interests that you think are dumb, wrong, dangerous or just plain unpleasant. We’re here to stand up for what we believe in, let’s not soften the message so much it doesn’t mean anything.
- Publicly embrace others, and get them to embrace you. If anyone should stand out at this march, it’s people who aren’t scientists. Do you know a group of firefighters, senior citizens or sex-workers who’d be prepared to march with signs saying “[non-science group of people] for science”? Give them a call and get them on board. Maybe get them to dress in uniform!
Now get out there
There’s still a bit of time to think about this and get it right. Of course, what “right” means will differ from person to person, so let’s get that clear before rushing out on April 22 and making all kinds of different noises.
It’s a wonderful feeling to unite with like-minded people, but let’s strive to show we are united for something that non-science people can relate to as well, or we’ll be portrayed as being united against those very same folks.
Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University