A scientist by any other name: more disciplinary diversity in science communication please


What do you say when someone outside your work circle asks what you do?

I’ve tried a few different responses, depending how much time I have to explain details. I sometimes think I should say ‘I’m a scientist’…it’s more recognisable, and maybe more ‘legitimate’ to doubters (ecology is a misunderstood discipline), and it makes the point that ecology is a bona fide science. But it’s also ambiguous.

What if the person I’m talking to thinks ‘science’ is just the physical or medical sciences? It gets a bit awkward when I hear back something along the lines of ‘Oh medical research is so important, I’m so glad you’re doing something to help’. When I say I’m an ecologist, it’s equally disheartening how many blank or confused looks I get.

I posed the question on Twitter and was surprised to find most people did say ‘ecologist’. It isn’t a big sample size, and I have no idea how cultural and individual differences influence those results, so take it with a bag of salt.

Ecology is one of the most difficult and relevant sciences of our time. But because popular media consistently separates ecology and environmental stories from what is called ‘science’ (i.e. the tangible ‘wow’ sciences like chemistry, technology, astronomy, physics etc.), this isn’t always clear to the broader community.

There are so many scientific disciplines, each with their own identity, knowledge base, and modus operandi…average sample sizes (see figure below), standards of study design, sampling equipment, appropriate analysis methods, funding expectations all differ among disciplines. What is standard practice in one discipline may be inadequate or irrelevant in another. What is considered essential information when reporting results in one field may not be in another. In particular, field-based natural sciences (like ecology, field biology, entomology, zoology, botany etc.) operate in stark contrast to predominantly lab-based sciences (like chemistry, physics, biomedical science, biotechnology etc.).

sample size
Median (SE) sample size from experimental papers in a few different scientific disciplines          (n = 20 papers for each discipline, random sample from recent issues of key journals in each field)

Most lab-based scientists would struggle to identify an insect or plant in the field, and most field-based ecologists wouldn’t understand every machine or protocol in a microbiology lab. An astrophysicist shouldn’t be asked to comment on why insects are in decline, just as an ecologist shouldn’t be asked to explain gravitational waves.

Communicating the differences between disciplines is just as important as communicating results and knowledge.

But this rarely happens in popular science communication. A Google News search shows how often experts are identified in news stories as generic terms like scientist, professor, or researcher compared to ecologist and other specialist terms.

Expert term

~ number of hits

Professor

8,380,000

Scientist

7,350,000

Researcher

2,010,000

Lecturer

1,370,000

Biologist

596,000

Neuroscientist

96,500

Astrophysicist

88,100

Ecologist

54,200

Botanist

32,000

Entomologist

23,800

This is important because not every scientist is qualified to comment on every scientific issue. So let’s make more of an effort to identify experts relative to their speciality and explain why they are qualified to comment. The best term to use will depend on the context, but here’s a general rule of thumb:

Collectively, we are ‘scientists’; individually, we are ‘specialists’.

Science is a vast body of knowledge. Subsuming ecology (and other natural sciences) into the ambiguous broadness of SCIENCE doesn’t help engage people with scientific knowledge and practice. Instead, we should be talking about the diversity of disciplines, showing how each discipline stands apart, as well as how they complement and inform each other.

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© Manu Saunders 2018

3 thoughts on “A scientist by any other name: more disciplinary diversity in science communication please

  1. Bartosz Bartkowski March 15, 2018 / 8:02 PM

    Now imagine you’re a social scientist (economist in my case), worse even, one working on environmental issues. People don’t know at all what to make of it. Is this science at all if it’s mainly desk-based?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ben Courtice March 16, 2018 / 12:50 PM

    Until a few years ago, I would have used the words “ecologist” and “environmentalist” interchangeably. I think for a lot of the public the word “ecologist” is pretty inseparable from “greenie”. I know in other languages there are conflations too, as I recall the French green party are called “Europe Ecology – The Greens” (in French of course). I think there is a long history of this use despite the separate and older use of the word “ecology” for a strict scientific meaning.

    Formally I could call myself a botanist (it was my major), but I suspect most people might think that’s a person who goes around oohing and aahing at rare plants and muttering Latin names while pressing a specimen or two for their collection. Well I do some of that I guess but much more! I am leaning toward “plant biologist” or even “plant scientist” which also allows some ambiguity if, for example, I am a botanist working on plant ecology (which is what I’m currently doing my honours on).

    Liked by 1 person

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