ARVO 2024 (3)

ARVO 2024 Closing Keynote Sheds Light on Communicating Science

Science is not just about facts; it’s about the process, the methodical journey towards understanding our world and the universe beyond. Yet, for many, science remains shrouded in mystery, its relevance and importance often lost in the maze of jargon and disconnected communication. In a world where information flows freely and opinions can overshadow evidence, the task of communicating science becomes not only important but essential.

Bridging the gap between science and society

Sheril Kirshenbaum, PhD (USA), an Emmy Award-winning scientist and author delivered an engaging talk on the significance of communicating science effectively as the closing keynote at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO 2024).

From her perspective, the need to bridge the gap between scientific research and public understanding is paramount. But why does communicating science matter? This was the opening question she posed, setting the tone for an interactive and enlightening discussion.

The responses from the audience echoed a common sentiment: science communication is crucial for increasing knowledge, raising awareness, fostering excitement, influencing behavior, shaping attitudes, building public trust and informing policy decisions. Indeed, the reasons are multifaceted and interconnected, reflecting the diverse ways in which science intersects with society.

Drawing from her own experiences, Dr. Kirshenbaum shared insights into the evolution of her career and the pivotal moments that shaped her approach to science communication. From her early days as a marine biologist studying sea cucumbers to her transition into the realm of science policy on Capitol Hill, she witnessed firsthand the challenges of translating complex scientific concepts into meaningful narratives that resonate with policymakers and the public alike.

She highlighted the inefficacy of simply conveying information without engaging in meaningful dialogue, as in traditional academic communication methods. Instead, she advocated for interactive learning processes where questions and participation are encouraged, fostering mutual understanding between speaker and audience. “We have to find a common language that maintains a sense of respect and makes it more of an equal footing relationship,” she said. 

In addition, she highlighted the changing media landscape and its implications for science communication. In an era dominated by social media influencers and sensationalist headlines, the role of traditional scientific journals and academic institutions is being reevaluated. Scientists must navigate this new terrain thoughtfully, leveraging digital platforms to reach wider audiences while maintaining the integrity and rigor of their research.

Principles for effective engagement

One of the key takeaways from Dr. Kirshenbaum’s presentation is about the need for scientists to adapt their communication strategies to different audiences. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all approaches; instead, scientists must engage in dialogue, listen actively and tailor their messages to meet the diverse needs and interests of their audience. By doing so, they can build trust, foster understanding, and ultimately, make a tangible impact on society.

Highlighting the importance of adapting the message to suit the audience, she urged scientists to craft concise, impactful messages that address the “what,” “why,” and “how” of their research. “Think about your 3s — What is it? Why does it matter? How does it affect my audience?” she said.

In addition, she emphasized the importance of storytelling in science communication. By crafting compelling narratives that resonate with emotion and empathy, scientists can capture the imagination of their audience and convey the significance of their work in meaningful ways. Whether it’s through anecdotes, metaphors or visual imagery, storytelling has the power to transcend barriers and foster genuine connections between scientists and the public.

Drawing on personal anecdotes, she emphasized the value of preparation, building relationships and active listening. “The most important part of communicating… is also the simplest, but it’s the thing that we forget most. It’s taking the time to listen,” she said.

Besides, she encouraged scientists to leverage diverse platforms, from traditional media outlets to social media and science-focused platforms like The Conversation, to amplify their message and reach a broader audience..

Addressing questions from the audience, she also offered insights into navigating cultural and linguistic barriers and fostering constructive dialogue in polarized political environments. She emphasized the importance of proactive engagement and strategic partnerships. “Think about the media people that you might wanna work with and collaborate where you can.”

In conclusion, Dr. Kirshenbaum’s talk underscored the shared responsibility of scientists in bridging the gap between science and society. By fostering dialogue, embracing diversity and harnessing the power of storytelling, scientists can pave the way for a more informed and engaged society. “As scientists, it’s not enough to just be doing science. We have to be prepared to tell these stories because when we don’t, someone else does it for us and we may not like the result,” she eloquently stated.

Editor’s Note: The Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO 2024) was held from 5-9 May in Seattle, Washington, USA. Reporting for this story took place during the event.

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