How activists make science communication better

10 Jan 2019

Dr Shaun O’Boyle delivers a presentation at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Dr Shaun O’Boyle spotlights some of the activists injecting science with more diverse perspectives and reflects on what this can do for science communication.

Science communication is an important part of the scientific process. If done well, it can empower people to use science to make their lives better and their communities healthier. It can encourage critical thinking and informed decision-making. It can make our experience of the world a little more interesting.

Science communication can also improve science. When scientists can have real conversations about their research with people who aren’t scientists, they’ll encounter new thoughts, opinions, ideas and perspectives on their work. This can influence how they think about, talk about or even how they conduct their research in the future.

Neither of these things happen  –  people can’t be empowered and scientists can’t be affected  –  unless you connect diverse groups of scientists with diverse groups of people who aren’t scientists, in a meaningful and respectful way.

Thankfully, most scientists and science communicators  – groups that are not mutually exclusive, of course –  have figured this out. We know that good science communication will include and represent the diversity of people who do science, and that it will try to reach the people who need it most. The problem is that we’re still all working within a framework that was put in place long before we all agreed this was a good idea.

Queering Museums

Museums have taught me a lot about science communication. Not unlike science, the artefacts and knowledge that they house belong to everyone, but historically not everyone has had equal access to them.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Queering Museums – where ‘queer’ is most definitely “something we do, rather than something that we are (or are not)” , to quote Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele – and to be introduced to a community of LGBTQ people who are queering the museums they work in. They uncover the queer history within their collections, and find ways to make it available to visitors.

‘These people  are activists. They bring their whole selves to their career so that museums will become more inclusive spaces’

The volunteer-led LGBTQ tours of the V&A, an initiative founded by Dan Vo, is a wonderful example of this. LGBTQ museum workers are also working to make their spaces more inclusive, such as Margaret Middleton who developed the Family Inclusive Language Chart to help museums be more welcoming to families of all kinds.

To me, these people  –  including, especially, Queering Museums founders Sacha Coward and Russell Dornan  –  are activists. (And, if I’m honest, heroes.) They bring their whole selves to their career so that museums will become more inclusive spaces.

Read all about it

There are activists in science, too. In 2013, education researcher Dr Allison Mattheis and evolutionary ecologist Dr Jeremy Yoder initiated a major, ongoing systematic survey on the experiences of LGBTQ in STEM. The data gathered by the project is shedding light on the nature and extent of the challenges faced by LGBTQ scientists, and has informed a lot of the work that I do.

To fully understand activism (and the need for activism) in science, you need to do your reading. Theoretical physicist Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein leads a study on the exclusion of minorities in astronomy and physics. Dr Prescod-Weinstein’s essays on racism and inequalities in science are essential reading. In the essay ‘Diversity is a Dangerous Set-up’, she wrote: “Promoting diversity rather than substantive structural change will not create equal opportunity and equal outcomes.”

Books such as Inferior by Angela Saini should also be at the top of everyone’s ‘to read’ list. It maps out the ways in which patriarchy and misogyny have shaped science and how we interpret it.

Good science communication

While science communication isn’t under the same selective pressures as scientific research, they have evolved within the same institutions, are funded by the same organisations and are often shaped by similar cultures. Sometimes scientists are science communicators, and sometimes science communicators are scientists.

‘Good science communication requires you to connect diverse groups of scientists with diverse groups of people’

We should critique ‘sci-comm’ just as we critique academia. In most cases, it’s not enough to take existing approaches to communicating science and simply make them more diverse. First, we need to ask why they weren’t diverse in the first place. If the line-up of speakers at an event doesn’t represent the diversity of people who work in science, for example, we must go back to first principles and examine all aspects of that event  –  the location, the audience, the host, the organising team, the mission, the themes and topics, everything  –  and ask if any of those choices might prevent or discourage minority or women scientists from taking part. If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s time to scrap that event and make a new one, because good science communication requires you to connect diverse groups of scientists with diverse groups of people who aren’t scientists.

There are science communicators already doing this, and doing it very well. Like the museum sector, science communication is home to queer activists who are making sure queer science stories are being told, LGBTQ scientists are being included and LGBTQ audiences are being respected. I’m lucky enough to work with many of them.

Many women and minority science communicators are activists because it is our best route to equal treatment. It’s important that we bring that activism to our work, because it allows us to challenge and deconstruct the way science is communicated. It helps us develop new formats and new approaches to science communication, so that more scientists can get involved; and it helps us create new content and new opportunities to connect with more diverse audiences.

Activists make science communication more inclusive so that more people can benefit from science, and so that science can benefit from having more people involved. Activists make science communication better.

By Dr Shaun O’Boyle

Dr Shaun O’Boyle is a science communicator and the founder of House of STEM, a network of LGBTQ scientists in Ireland. He is also the co-founder of the audio production partnership Bureau, which is behind Inspirefest: The Podcast. He spoke at Inspirefest 2018 about the experiences of the LGBTQ community in science.

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.