FASEB and NIGMS Host Workshop on Responsible Communication of Research

by Chanel Matney, FASEB

On June 22, FASEB partnered with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to host a day-long workshop, “Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype,” at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The meeting hosted a diverse group of invited panelists representing academic science, industry, public relations, marketing, science journalism, and education. In addition, the event was videocast for remote audiences, and Twitter users followed the dialogue on social media (#basicbiocomm).

Erika Check Hayden, Director of the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former staff writer for Nature gave the keynote address. She noted that as researchers struggle to share their findings in a crowded information ecosystem, a troubling trend has emerged: publications, press releases, and news articles sometimes “hype” or sensationalize scientific results, resulting in inaccurate interpretations of data and the potential erosion of public trust in research, and the institutions conducting it. Rich discussion followed Check Hayden’s presentation, with panelists contemplating the various motivators for science communication, the effect of exaggerated results on public attitudes towards science, and the role stakeholder groups should play in supporting best practices.

Panelists agreed that the hypercompetitive research environment of recent years has changed the way scientific findings are communicated. In the years following the doubling of the NIH budget, the number of applications for research project grants has continued to rise despite periods of flat funding. With grant success rates falling, investigators and institutions faced increasing pressures to differentiate their research activities. Similarly, most academic promotion and tenure policies reward investigators for publication, particularly in top-tier journals. Panelists admitted that inflated press reports with splashy headlines may be a survival tactic to garner attention in this competitive funding environment.

Scientists themselves may need to re-examine how their own attitudes, goals, and incentives shape the way science is presented. There was broad agreement that reliance on scientific jargon can make research findings inaccessible and thus uninteresting to the public. Panelists shared various strategies on how to make scientific results understandable and relatable. Suggestions included weaving the human element into the story arc; using metaphor and imagery to explain techniques, experiments, and analyses; even engaging with audiences by inviting them to participate in hypothesis-testing or experimental design. And with a nod to humility, one panelist contended that researchers must earn a reader or listener’s time and attention.

Panelists discussed how clear and transparent messaging creates an environment that fosters collaboration and innovation across research disciplines. Similarly, rather than aiming only for high profile front-page stories for general audiences, it was suggested that investigators reach out to community-level stakeholders, especially those in local industry. A press release about the invention of an assembly line robot that debones chickens may not receive a lot of attention as a news headline, but publication in Meat and Poultry magazine would be a reasonable alternative. These more narrowly targeted marketing strategies are more likely to reach the right audience that is likely to appreciate the impact of the research. The panelists agreed that creating opportunities for a meaningful exchange of ideas – between scientists from different disciplines, or between scientists and stakeholders – might be more meaningful than chasing a prominent headline.

Journalists and educators at the workshop stressed that scientists should be formally trained in science communication with writing and public outreach skills treated as core competencies. Some felt that increasing the scientific literacy of the general public should be a concurrent goal, particularly in building an understanding of research limitations and caveats; for example, animal models as a proxy for human systems, research replicability, and statistical uncertainty.

In summary, the panel agreed that stakeholders in the room and the many constituencies they represent must reaffirm their shared commitment to rigor and transparency. Moving forward, FASEB and NIGMS are compiling panel discussion comments to determine potential next steps and action items. A videocast of the workshop is available on the NIH website.

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