Every two years, the United States National Science Foundation (US-NSF) asks a few thousand random citizens to take a science quiz to determine how much they understand about science and technology. As stewards of the public taxpayer investment, NSF knows that public perception ultimately drives legislative decisions.
But despite the best efforts of a lot of great communicators whom I know and respect, public understanding hasn’t improved over the years, and in some categories, it has deteriorated. Well-funded misinformation campaigns driven by greedy agendas capture more of the general public’s attention than real science. Popular culture has even reinforced misinformation, in many cases.
In the 2016 US-NSF survey, only half of respondents thought that climate change is dangerous for the environment. The balance either didn’t know, or thought it wasn’t detrimental at all.
Among ten questions relating to every day science, there was very little improvement between those polled in 1995 and 2015 when it came to a general understanding of critically-important concepts, for example, “antibiotics don’t kill viruses.” Since we’re faced with an increasing number of drug-resistant bacteria, everybody needs to know when not to abuse antibiotics or the superbugs will win!
And the clincher; how dangerous are genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)? The scientific community answered, “not very, or at all.” But 75 percent of random citizens continue to believe GMOs are either somewhat or extremely dangerous. That, combined with a lack of understanding about climate change, has a profound impact on global food security—especially in countries where agriculture comprises a large percentage of the GDP. It isn’t only the weather that is behaving differently; pests and diseases that impact crop production are, too. Since plant biologists know how to modify plant genes so that they’re resistant to certain threats, most scientists understand that GMOs are necessary if we hope to have enough food, feed, fiber and fuel, to meet the needs of a growing global population.
So what can scientists, science educators and communicators do to engage and inform the taxpaying and legislative public? The US-NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs suggests that we package information in basic terms so that someone with a fourth-grade education can readily understand it (less text and zero 50 cent words; lose domain-specific acronyms, etc.). But lately, there are more demands on our time, and the social media info-stream is polluted. Fake news memes are shared more often than well-drafted and researched feature articles.
Is it different in Europe? In 2006, German Alex Dreppec—a fan of poetry slams—promoted the first “Science Slam,” to create awareness of topics, that are traditionally limited to laboratory experiments, and it’s catching on. In 2018, more than 100 science slams were held throughout Germany, where scientists had the opportunity to engage people of all ages and backgrounds, who are blissfully unplugged for an evening of fun.
In a night-club or café environment—some otherwise shy performers may benefit from a pint of German liquid encouragement or double espresso—young scientists take the stage for ten minutes to explain their research in the most creative and fun ways. It’s competitive, and the winner is one who can explain the most complicated stuff, with clarity, humor and conviction. The audience chooses the winner with their applause or by voting, and the performers’ research colleagues are nearby to ensure the information is factual.
If you’re planning to attend the ISC High Performance in Frankfurt June 16-20, you’ll be delighted to know that you’ll witness the first ISC Science Slam! As part of the preconference party on Sunday, June 16 from 6:00 pm – 8:30 p.m., the 2019 ISC Science Slam welcomes veteran slammers Aniruddha Dutta, Anastasia August, and Johannes Kretschzmar who will serve as masters of ceremony.
Anastasia August (featured above left) has been participating in Science Slams since 2014. “It’s a lot of fun; in this comfortable cabaret environment, you’re learning and laughing at the same time,” she said. She was nominated to take part in 2014 and 2018, and is now the German National Vice Champion of Science Slam.
Aniruddha Dutta (featured in the top photo on the right) began slamming in 2015, first with three-minute “Famelab” talks before progressing to standard ten-minute presentations. In 2018, he won the German championship and now bears the moniker, “Deutscher Science Slam Meister 2018.”
“I’m a metal physicist; all researchers rely on material science or metallurgists at some point, even supercomputer engineers,” said Dutta. He explained that the process of preparing content for slams has helped him develop a deeper understanding of his research, and added, “I can now explain my work to everyone from grandfathers to school kids, and each new slam helps me perfect my delivery while I’m having fun.”
About the Author
HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.
As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.