This post is part of our ongoing “SMASH Reflections” series, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
by Shaena Montanari
With an event like SMASH, gathering science media professionals and scientists from around the world, it can be difficult to distill the incredibly action-packed week into take-home lessons—but I’m going to give it a try. As a Fellow of the conference, I had the opportunity to attend every session and talk to a diverse array of people. Through my lens as a scientist who is driven by a need to communicate, here are my three take-home messages from SMASH:
Science communication is important and can drive change
Despite questions in policy, the popular press, and even among scientists themselves around the utility of science communication, a major takeaway of this summit was that almost everyone working at the intersection of science and media agrees that science communication is important. At the end of the day, documentary filmmakers, podcasters, TV producers, journalists, thinkers, and scientists are all striving towards getting science out to every segment of the population they possibly can in extremely diverse ways. There is a wide world of media out there seeking to engage the public on different platforms.
For me as a scientist, it is invaluable to learn how those in different forms of media view science and how to communicate it. From documentaries to podcasts, I realized there is a place and a need for experts to communicate their research with clarity and disseminate their messages. As a scientist, sometimes it seems difficult to connect with the public, but scores of experienced communication professionals are excited and energized by those of us who want to share our messages with the public—we just need to connect with them.
Above all, SMASH brought home to me how important science communication is for advocacy and promoting curiosity in society. We heard from Dan Kahan from Yale University, whose research on science communication shows that scientific curiosity is intimately tied to the public’s understanding of often “controversial” topics like climate change and evolution. If we scientists can connect with the media to broadcast our message, perhaps we can increase scientific curiosity and change the world in a positive way.
The world of possibility of science communication is enormous
From the 30-second Facebook video to long-form documentary, there is no shortage of ways to share your science. While traditional forms such as the epic nature documentary will always have their place, new forms of media are taking over the world of science communication and reaching new sets of eyes on all parts of the Internet.
As a scientist of the younger generation that essentially grew up online, the “Beyond Clickbait” panel at SMASH resonated the most with me. It highlighted how the world of communication is changing in general, and how scientists can ride the wave in this world of viral videos and Internet celebrity. Hearing from creators of YouTube series like Anna Rothschild of “Gross Science” and Joe Hanson of “It’s Okay To Be Smart” really drove home how new media on YouTube and Snapchat is the delivery method of science for the Millennial generation of thinkers—and beyond. Erin Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History is creating the series “Shelf Life” and revolutionizing the way a nearly 150-year-old institution communicates science to the public, while promoting the work of researchers who may not have previously had a voice.
While the most popular videos on Facebook are now captioned because people aren’t using headphones, there is still space for immersive science media that captivates listeners—as we learned in the panel on podcasting. This panel featured unbelievably creative producers like Mary E. Harris of WNYC’s “Only Human”, who is personalizing health stories for popular audiences. And if someone only has a few moments to listen to a podcast, they can check out a 10 second Snapchat story, like those from National Geographic that change every day. I was genuinely impressed and inspired by the idea of transmedia—disseminating a message across platforms—and saw how vital it is and will continue to be to touch many different groups of people across the world.
We have no idea where we might be in 5 years—and that’s the most exciting thing of all
As science communicators, we are constantly evolving and changing how we disseminate our message. Where we will be in even 5 short years will likely be completely uncharted territory.
The entire summit kicked off with a keynote from Director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito, who emphasized that what we think of as bizarre now, like self-driving cars, will become an accepted fact of life in at most two generations. In another panel, we heard about the uses of virtual reality and saw an award-winning use of this for medical education in HoloAnatomy. The scientists that spoke at SMASH are doing truly groundbreaking things— for example Steve Ramirez at Harvard University who is manipulating memories, or Kim Arcand from NASA who is visualizing the furthest reaches of the universe.
These are just a selection of the scientists who are pushing the very bounds of the disciplines we’ve grown to accept. Both science and communication are going to new places at breakneck speeds, so not only do we need to figure out how to communicate boundary-pushing science, but we need to do it in a way that brings together design, science, and creativity. New spaces between disciplines are being created that innovators will thrive in—as Ito calls it: “antidisciplinary space”— and will likely create things we haven’t even dreamed up yet. There is a world of possibility and opportunity. We just need to keep unraveling it.
About the author: As a Newton International Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Shaena Montanari works on uncovering archives of modern and ancient ecology locked in bones. She is also a contributor at Forbes online, where she writes about paleontology, natural history, and comparative biology. She received her PhD from the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.