Communicating Science: Perspectives from Molecular Therapy Executive Editor Dr. Robert Frederickson

Kenji Rowel Lim - December 14, 2020

Kenji Rowel Lim discusses the challenges of communicating science with Molecular Therapy Executive Editor Robert Frederickson, Ph.D.

Science is a field built on communication. As scientists, we share our work at conferences, publish articles, and learn what we can from each other to move our research forward. While this is all well and good, the unfortunate thing is that the communication often stops there. We forget that we also have a responsibility to share our science with everyone else. But how can people understand our science when it is under a veil of jargon, technical terms, and words no one else has ever heard of before?

“Lay [science] communication is tricky, and getting trickier lately as we have seen. The main aim… is to explain scientific results and methods to non-scientists in a way that they can easily digest and appreciate,” says Robert Frederickson, Ph.D., Executive Editor of the Molecular Therapy family of journals maintained by ASGCT.

Decoding the language of science is one of two major challenges faced by many when describing their work to the public. The other is finding a way to get the word out, which is also not that simple. “Often however, it is not the most important stories that are covered, just the ones that are more relatable to a broader lay audience,” Frederickson points out. In other words, when science is communicated it should answer both the what? and the so what?

With the current pandemic, it has become more important than ever to promote effective science communication. Aside from being a global health threat, COVID-19 has ushered in a time of uncertainty—uncertainty that could spiral into fear, distress, and panic when kept unchecked. Scientists play a crucial role in understanding COVID-19, and in developing ways to manage or treat COVID-19 patients. Findings from these studies need to be relayed to the public to keep everyone informed and to quell doubt. Information is power during these times, and its sharing is a task done hand-in-hand with the media.

“Traditional media is important in explaining scientific findings and their implications to the educated lay audience,” says Frederickson. As we are all aware though, there are much more accessible sources of news at present: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Unfortunately, these come with their own issues. “Social media in particular is rife with misinformation and, frankly, disinformation these days,” comments Frederickson. Indeed, one could say that the flow of information in social media is too fast, so much so that the distinction between fact and opinion is often blurred.

This confusion tends to paint a distorted image of what science really is. Naturally and with the ominous backdrop provided by COVID-19, this has quickly led to growing public distrust in science and scientists. “There are forces that are trying to cast the scientific community as elite, liberal and dishonest and it is scary to watch,” says Frederickson. And so, what can we do as scientists? Faced with a steep climb, how can we combat rampant misinformation and public distrust through science communication? “Perhaps we need to try to aim for a better understanding of the scientific process amongst the lay audience,” suggests Frederickson.

Frederickson offers further insights for gene and cell therapy researchers: “Well, explaining the processes and the biology behind it [research work] can lose a lot of folks. One way to overcome that partly is to work with patient advocacy groups who are trying to foster cures, as they are true stakeholders who can advocate for the results.” Frederickson also pointed out that organizations like ASGCT can aid in the communication effort by helping teach people about gene and cell therapy. In fact, ASGCT has an extremely informative Patient Education site dedicated to informing patients and the public about gene and cell therapy.

When asked how scientists could get trained or more involved in science communication, Frederickson replies: “I wish I had an easy answer.” He suggests we can start small. “I think perhaps by supporting solid vetted sources of reliable information.”

Ultimately, Frederickson thinks the situation calls for a long-term solution. “I do believe that universities and institutes should do a better job of training folks to better convey what they do to a lay audience and should work harder on public relations, etc.” Perhaps training programs in science communication can be a new normal in the near future.

Kenji Rowel Lim is a Ph.D. candidate in medical genetics at the University of Alberta, Canada, and a member of the ASGCT Communications Committee.

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