Visions from nature

Jarod Lyon: Science Communication at the Coalface

By Sam Perrin

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with prominent ecologists, which you can find here.

The advent of social media changed many things about the world, but if there’s one big change that’s become really quite evident in the last two years, it’s how we get our information. This has influenced ecology dramatically over the last decade, with a great deal of scientists now present on social media. But are we adapting fast enough, and in the right way?

At the Australian Society of Fish Biology’s Annual Conference last week, Jarod Lyon, who manages the Applied Aquatic Ecology Section at Australia’s Arthur Rylah Institute, gave a talk about applied science in the ‘fake news’ era. I took the opportunity to sit down and quiz Jarod as to how we need to approach public communication in the era of social media.

Jarod Lyon believes that people still want to hear science from experts, but that our perception of what makes an expert has changed
Jarod Lyon believes that people still want to hear science from experts, but that our perception of what makes an expert has changed (Image Credit: Jarod Lyon, Arthur Rylah Institute)

Sam Perrin (SP): Globally in the last 5-10 years, we’ve seen an apparent loss of trust in experts in large political events. Have you seen the same thing happen in Australia with regards to science?

Jarod Lyon, Manager Applied Aquatic Ecology, Arthur Rylah Institute (JL): I think what’s changed is the way people are getting their information. I think that when the world moved on to social media, we were caught with our pants down a little bit. If you can get expert information to people in the way that they currently like to receive it (i.e.. through social media), then it can still be effective.

I think attitudes towards science are still reasonably good, where I work at least. There is a bit of a push away from experts, but I think that’s led by how people get their news. It’s given everyone the chance to become an expert. So people still think they’re getting news from experts. I even think they’d rather get news from experts, but they can’t distinguish between who’s an expert and who isn’t.

I’m a big advocate for not just having science communicators, but for having all scientists being communicators. We should be out there at the coalface doing this.. Science communicators might be up-to-date on Twitter and Facebook, but I don’t think scientists are, or that they realise how important it is.

SP: So the goal is to get to a point where the term ‘science communicator’ is redundant?

JL: Ideally. This should really be taught already at a Bachelor’s level. Look across the science community at the moment, at who’s world-leading in either industry, government or academia. If you look at the ones who are having an impact with their work, it’s the ones who are good communicators. Gone are the days of the professors sitting in their offices just publishing. The ones who are having an impact now are the ones who are good communicators.

SP: I guess the danger in scientists and science communicators turning towards Facebook is that it’s the same medium that a lot of these less-scientifically backed people have. Does that lead to false balance?

JL: It does. So false balance is where one side of an argument is given a higher weighting than the evidence says that it should. I think climate change is a reasonable example of it. Most researchers accept that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by humans. Maybe 5% of researchers don’t, but those 5% get as much of a hearing as the rest. And that’s the false balance. It’s probably the fault of the media for always wanting a fight.

So you have to be careful. It can be a race to the bottom. That’s a fine line you’ve got to walk. But I can’t see any other option apart from being out there trying to communicate through that medium. Or more importantly, be connected to the people who you know are communicating through that medium. We’ve seen the rise of the social media influencer. And this is valid for science too. If you can be a trusted advisor of someone who influences millions of people, it’s very worthwhile.

SP: Issues like climate change seem to be ideological here in Australia, however in many countries they’re not, the attitude is more “we know these things are happening, we just need to decide what to do about them”. How do we get to that point here?

JL: I think because of this way that people are changing how they get their information, companies and brands and people with agendas are now using these social media influencers. We as researchers almost have a responsibility to influence the people with good science. Because whether it be climate change or fisheries management or natural resource management, people are going get information and form opinions one way or another. It used to be through newspapers, before that through the town crier. Now it’s social media. And forming those opinions or helping form those opinions based on fact is going to be increasingly important.

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“We need the next generation of scientists to be at the coalface, communicating good scientific information.” (Image Credit: Jarod Lyon)

SP: I’ve spoken to a couple of researchers overseas who talk about using emotional arguments to influence the public, and others who want us to maintain faith in the public and present them with the facts and trust them to make decisions. Do the public deserve that faith?

JL: They always deserve faith. I’m one of them, I want some faith. Now we could just go out there with an emotive sell line like a seal stuck in a fishing net or a whale that’s been hit by a propeller, but people see through that stuff now. We need to have the community and the public delivering the messages based on fact for us. And I don’t think that’s happening enough. So it’s that relationship with those key influencers that’s important.

SP: We were talking about scientific communication being taught from a young age. Is there a danger of getting a bunch of people who don’t want to do this and are bad at it?

JL: Yes. Science is done by a bunch of different people. I work at a public research institute, which is funded largely by grants through agencies and government type money. I think people who work with that funding, the onus is on them to show people directly, not just through science communicators, how that money is being spent and why it’s important, why it’s led to a better outcome for the spend of their money. Universities are a bit different, there isstill lots of space for people who are doing the really fundamental, stuck in the office, theoretical type work, which isn’t as easily communicated. But that’s ok, because that work influences the other institutes that do communicate.

I don’t think there will be a one size fits all, but I don’t think we’re at the point where we have enough scientists communicating. It’s very easy to just give a manuscript or a new project to a science communicator, and they turn it into a media release or a fluffy little video, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Fish or something like that. But I don’t think that cuts through. We need the next generation of scientists to be at the coalface, communicating good scientific information.

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