We Need More Rapunzels in the Ivory Tower

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I attended an NSF Becoming the Messenger workshop here at MU. It was such a great experience. I really appreciated the advice the presenters provided for scientists about becoming more effective communicators, especially with the general public. It also revealed some unexpected (at least to me) perspectives on public communication and social media.

During a session on the advantages of Twitter, presenter and science writer Chris Mooney expressed that many scientists have a “dignity problem” with Twitter. Some feel that tweeting about their work somehow makes what they do less important because anyone can be on Twitter, anyone can send out a tweet. This viewpoint demonstrates what I think is a real problem in academia: scientists often think that communicating with the public involves an act of stooping down, reducing themselves, or discounting their credibility.

Having this outlook perpetuates an ivory tower mentality, a belief that the work scientists do is meant only for an academic elite to understand and that it’s beneath scientists to inform the public. What we need, however, is more Rapunzels. We need scientists who are willing to provide a connection from the ivory tower to the public and who find true value in doing so.

Here’s where Twitter can serve as a useful tool. As Mooney stated, anyone can be on Twitter. What is a better way to communicate about your research than by sharing it with anyone and everyone? By tweeting, scientists make their work accessible. They can even move beyond sharing about their research to starting conversations with the public through replies and retweets.

Twitter can also serve to gauge the quality of scientific research. Mooney shared about a study that found a positive correlation between the number of citations an academic paper gets and the number of times that paper is tweeted about (aka “tweetations”). Citations, the currency of academia, can actually be predicted by a social media site used mostly by laypeople. How’s that for some dignity?

There is hope, however, in knowing that some brave Rapunzels are already out there. During a session on science blogging, Mooney talked about Dr. Rosie Redfield (@RosieRedfield), a scientist at the University of British Columbia who is a regular tweeter. Redfield also writes a blog where she shares about daily life in her research lab. Instead of closing the doors tight, she invites the public right into her lab for a peek at the real ways in which science happens.

Dr. Jon Brock (@DrBrocktagon) of Macquarie University comes to my mind. This autism researcher tweets daily and blogs about real issues in cognitive science and autism research on a regular basis. Another strong presence in the Twittersphere is Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie), a PhD student at the University Hawaii who writes for Discover Blogs.  I was excited to hear Mooney mention Wilcox at the NSF workshop as he highlighted her unique voice for science and sharing it with the public.

These scientists represent many tweeters and bloggers that I follow and others I hope to discover soon. But we need more. Rapunzel shouldn’t be just a fairy tale. We need real life scientists to strive to communicate with the public, to let down their hair from the ivory tower, so the public can climb up and join them in understanding and enthusiasm.