Dominique Brossard, science communicator

As scientists find their voices in public and policy debates, this researcher tests what does and does not work. Interview by Kim Smuga-Otto

April 07, 2015

Dominique Brossard. Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

A growing number of scientists are leaving their metaphorical ivory towers and tromping over to the Internet cafe to promote their research and join the science debate on social media. A recent poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of the respondents use social media to discuss or follow science. Nearly one-quarter of them blog about science.

This interest in public engagement by scientists seems encouraging, but it paints the story in very broad strokes. Science communicator Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin–Madison thinks she has a more detailed view. When she surveyed working scientists at her university, she found just 30 percent turned regularly to social media to investigate science. The number who valued social media to connect with their colleagues varied by discipline: 33 percent of social scientists, 18 percent of physical scientists, 16 percent of biological scientists. Their favorite platform wasn’t Facebook or Twitter; it was Wikipedia.

Brossard studied plant biotechnology in France before switching to science communication. Her recent worked has earned notice. For instance, she was an author on a 2013 paper that found uncivilized or “nasty” comments posted after an otherwise uncontroversial science article could polarize the views of readers. Last year, she and her colleagues published research showing a positive correlation between tweets mentioning scientists’ papers and their scientific impact as measured by the H-index.

Although Brossard’s findings were less glowing than the Pew results, she remains sanguine about the trajectory of scientific engagement. After speaking at the February 2015 meeting of the AAAS in San Jose and checking its Twitter notices, she sat down with SciCom's Kim Smuga-Otto to discuss the difficulties and rewards for scientists who engage with the public.

When you trained as a plant geneticist, did you receive any education in science communication?

Not at all. I didn't have any exposure to these things. In France, we had few courses [outside of] our discipline. I think that is very dangerous.

At Wisconsin we have created a class called “Science, Media and Society.” It's taken by a lot of students in the life sciences or even the hard sciences. I think the trend in higher education will be to integrate science and social science in all the curricula.

Since getting your Ph.D. in science communication at Cornell University in the early 2000s,  have you observed a change in how scientists engage with the public?

I've seen a realization of understanding the dynamics of communication patterns and how they affect people’s attitudes. I’ve seen scientists being more interested in communication between scientists and journalists, or between scientists and policymakers. You have communication everywhere.

That wasn't even thought about 20 years ago. It’s a drastic, extremely important change. When I was training in science, we never heard the term "engagement"—or "communication," for that matter. Ever. And that tells you something.

Do you think it's a generational thing?

It's not just age. We have some analysis of our university data. While age is related to more engagement, it is also a technology-savvy thing. People that tend to be more technology-oriented will tend to be more engaged. [Postdoctoral researchers] in ecology or environmental science are extremely engaged. Postdocs in genetic engineering, not so much.

Wouldn’t engineers have more computer interactions?

They do, but they don't tend to be extremely active toward other audiences. They may be on ResearchGate, but they don't spend so much time to actually seek out others. I think it's more a philosophical approach to the discipline. Ecology is much more publicly oriented; that's what I was trying to say.

What was your field? 

"When I was training in science, we never heard the term 'engagement'—or 'communication,' for that matter. Ever. And that tells you something."

Stem cells.

So stem cells. You know there has been so much debate that people are more open to this kind of idea. Biomedical sciences has quite a bit of [public] engagement. We know the medical community uses lots of different communication tools.

You recently studied science communication by scientists at your own institution. Were there any findings that surprised you?

To some extent, I thought the finding that 17 percent of scientists occasionally tweet about their research was pretty high. I was pleasantly surprised that the researchers think that social media is a great way to communicate with the lay public.

It’s nice, and you can build on that momentum, but it’s a little naïve because it takes a lot of work to actually reach the lay public. Most of us on Twitter follow people who are interested in what we do or you write your blog. How many people have a blog that actually reaches people who are outside their [field of interest]?

Social media can be powerful, but it's extremely hard to be successful.

Let's say you were talking to a newly hired assistant professor, and he wanted to know why he should reach out to the public.

Because if he doesn't, someone else will. We know that in policy debates about issues that have ethical, legal, social, and scientific dimensions, very vocal minorities will take the stage and state their opinion. If we as scientists don't take the stage, the stage will be taken by someone else. Is that a risk worth taking?

But this newly hired professor is trying to manage grants, set up a lab and maybe teach. What actual advantage does he get from reaching out to the public?

We wouldn't let the assistant professor get buried and do all the outreach. But there is a healthy level of involvement I think everybody can manage. There is a demand from local organizations to give the occasional talk, or [to help] science museums with an exhibition. New grants ask you to do that, so it's better to learn now than being unprepared.

I would also encourage my assistant professor to get some media training on how to interact with journalists or even a crash course in social media. Giving a talk every couple of months or tweeting five times a week is really something you can manage. I think it's a good thing to get used to doing.

Social media is a great way to reach out to people directly. But mistakes on social media have come back to haunt scientists. How can a scientist navigate this?

Honestly, you don't improvise as a communicator. Everyone needs to be perfectly aware of the potential pitfalls that are inherent to anything you do in a public setting. You wouldn't come to a public forum and begin shouting things that are private, so why would you do it in social media? Why would you take an extreme stance when you wouldn't do it at the dinner table?

A lot of young scientists embarking in this communication think it's great. However, I would strongly urge everyone to take a big breath and look at the research we [communication scientists] do. 

When I first became interested in science communication, I ran into the term “Science Deficit Model.” I had never heard the term before, but it was like a light went on.

Me too! I was actually using it all the time when I was a scientist.

How do you explain the deficit model to scientists?

The deficit model basically states that if you can only explain to people, this will change their attitude. Knowledge and understanding predict how people will feel about science. So there's a deficit in knowledge, and if we can put stuff in, it will change. [That model] has been debunked by research in social science.

How do you explain the deficit model to the general public?

You don't need to explain that to the public. People know. If you have your idea fixated on something, I can come and explain, explain, explain it to you. Will I change your mind? Most certainly not. You’re going to use your values.

When I taught a class on controversial science and the community, I had some students who were extremely religious. I used different topics, such as stem cell research and genetic engineering. One kid came and said, "You know, it's not that I changed my views, but it's nice to actually understand why I feel the way I feel." That's what we want: some sort of literacy for people knowing why they feel strongly, and a recognition of the values they put in the mix.

A scientist might think if that's the case, then how do I communicate my science? Does it matter?

Actually, it does matter. If you want me to believe what you’re telling me, or be interested in your science, you need to find out what’s going to be interesting to me. What frame will you use to talk to me that's going to resonate with whatever frame I have in my mind already? Which pictures, which headlines, which stories, which sources are going to make your science story resonate with the audience? That's the key.

Scientific research is nuanced. But communication for the public needs to be simplified. How does a scientist get her message out without it being overly simplified or turned into a sound bite?

I think we need to get off of that whole “science is complicated” [notion]. The groundbreaking things in the world are things that can be summarized in a few words, like E=mc2. There's always a level of simplification, or of narrative, that's going to be adapted to a certain audience. It’s just the way it is. What we say to our fellow scientists in a conference is not the same thing that we say to the department chair who's not in our discipline, and it's not the same for our dean, and it's not the same for our neighbor. Different audiences will have the right level of detail.

I ask [my grad students] to pitch their dissertation. Can you actually tell me in three minutes what your dissertation is about? If you cannot, that's really troublesome. 

I don't think that people are trained to think [at] those different levels. It doesn't mean that simplification is bad. Not everybody needs the same level of detail, don't you think?

[Laughter] But Im a science journalist!

Yes, exactly, I'm preaching to the converted.


© 2015 Kim Smuga-Otto. SciCom graduate student Kim Smuga-Otto communicates her work at