When is the last time you opened a scientific journal to read the abstract of the latest paper on single-molecule dissections of stacking forces in DNA? Probably never.
Most people are not researchers keeping up with the latest and greatest in scientific advancement. Understanding papers published in high-profile journals like science, nature or systematic biology is nearly impossible for anyone, even scientists themselves. Unless you’ve spent a large chunk of your life studying and researching within a particular scientific niche, you’re not likely to understand what’s going on.
There’s a growing disconnect between scientists and everyone else, which some may argue makes research irrelevant in the public eye. What good is a discovery if no one understands it or knows about it?
Here are some statistics highlighting the problem.
According to the latest Pew Research Center study, 87 percent of scientists believe natural selection is involved in evolution, while only 32 percent of the public agrees. The question is whether the public even knows what natural selection is and how it works.
The number is higher, 55 percent, when it comes to public agreement on human-caused climate change, whereas 87 percent of scientists agree that we as a society have accelerated global warming.
Only 37 percent of the public agrees that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, contrasting with the 88 percent of scientists who also agree on this topic.
The research shows that natural selection is the driving force behind the evolution of life, whether it has to do with the way organisms look, behave or interact with the world around them. The research also shows that the start of the industrial, fossil fuel-guzzling world matches with the rapid and sudden increase in global average temperatures. We are always eating genetically modified food, yet no significant health defects have been reported as being caused by GMO consumption.
So, why is there such a large disparity between scientific opinion and public opinion when the research is present and clear enough to make strong conclusions?
The answer may be that most scientists don’t actively bring their science to the public in an understandable and engaging way. Many of these scientists may be poor communicators who are only concerned with their scientific work rather than the public engagement component of their work. Scientists often focus on their own research communities and collaboration with those within their particular expertise.
Still adding to the disconnect is public policy. Places of higher education like universities and colleges, seem to constantly experience federal budget cuts that inevitably affect the research these institutions push out.
Nowadays, it seems as though information is flowing through social media more than any other outlet and scientists need to find a way of hopping onto the current. Institutions like the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, for example, are increasing their social media efforts by posting facts, pictures of specimens and many more science related topics on their Twitter account. At least a few labs at UConn have Twitter accounts with minimal public engagement. UConn Today attempts to bring research to the public conscience through magazine publications.
Yes, public engagement is happening in the science world, but just not enough to keep up with the times. The solution? Scientists need to work to make research more accessible to the general public.
Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org