Pandemic’s silver lining: taking the snobbery out of science

As scientists, we need to try to banish jargon and definitely banish turgid PowerPoint presentations.  We need to challenge ourselves to communicate in a way that celebrates that science is discovery and exploration.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put science firmly in the world’s living rooms — every cloud has a silver lining.

It has made me wonder how the scientific world came to be so disconnected from the living room in the first place. Jargon, complexity and, unfortunately, sometimes academic arrogance — learned people speaking condescendingly to those ‘‘less informed’’ — are enemies of the scientific cause.

Fortunately, during this pandemic we have been treated to some excellent scientific discourse from local and international scientists.

Are these scientists special? Yes and no. They are special in that they have survived an education system that can make science pretty dire, but scientists are not special in that they are inquisitive and looking for evidence to support their theories. This is something that almost every human I have ever met does on a regular basis — scientists have simply learned a formal, systematic way of doing and recording this.

Great science teachers are worth their weight in gold. In school I was a pretty ordinary science student — my physics teacher told my father I would always be a ‘‘B student’’ and my chemistry teacher told me I would never be as good as my older brother — hilarious and partly true!

Scientific concepts and terminology often daunted me, but I still remember a wonderful series of lessons in my 5th form with my Logan Park High School science teacher, Mrs Copeland, who introduced me to genetics. She had the whole class rolling their tongues to determine who in the class might have inherited genes that gave them an inability to roll — I was a minority non-roller! There is debate now as to whether this trait is genetic at all, but isn’t that the wonder of it all: the asking and the exploring, the proving and the disproving.

In that class, I also remember very clearly being introduced to and discussing the very new world of genetic engineering, and what we might achieve — a topic I still follow and debate to this day.

Now that I am a geneticist, I can honestly say that I have never met anyone who is not interested in genetics, how traits have been passed on through family lines and how their genes might be influenced by the environment. Mrs Copeland somehow made that accessible to me in scientific terms, which is exactly what some leading New Zealand scientists are doing now with their explanations of how Covid-19 works and how we might respond.

Right now, everybody is interested in how viruses are transmitted, how they mutate, how antibodies and vaccines are created and how data can be modelled to predict disease outcomes.

I love that it is a female with bright pink hair who has helped us navigate the viral pandemic terminology. During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen some of our truly world-class scientists come to the fore and that is a reason to celebrate. However, we do need to ask the question of how science became so distant from our living rooms in the first place and here is my plea to the science community.

When I was a young scientist, I remember spending hours trying to write and sound like a scientist. I worried about the words I used and whether I was using those words in the right context. During presentations, I would make sure I used technical words to sound good and I must confess, I still do this on occasion!

I want to tell my young scientist self that ‘‘sounding right’’ is not what makes for great science.

Science is asking questions and answering them in a way that is logical and shareable so others can learn and repeat. If you need to do that in your own words with some crazy analogies, then do so, and if someone disapproves of that, that’s their problem — unless of course they are your supervisor, and then you have to play their game, for a short time anyway!

As scientists, we need to try to banish jargon and definitely banish turgid PowerPoint presentations. We need to challenge ourselves to communicate in a way that celebrates that science is discovery and exploration — how cool is that? We need to invite people into our world, and not try to make ourselves superior through our learnings. We have some fantastic budding virologists, epidemiologists and geneticists out there thanks to this pandemic. Who knows where they will end up?

For my sake, I hope some end up in the world of food and agri. Science is and should be ageless, borderless, raceless and genderless, and we need to ensure that this is always the case.

■ Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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