Talkin’ Brains: Neuroscientists Need to Communicate Their Research to the Public More Effectively

Neuroscientists Need to Communicate Their Research to the Public More Effectively

by Moheb Costandi

September 3, 2010

From the use of brain-scanning data in the courtroom to the use of so-called “smart drugs” among students and academics and the fear that an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease is looming, neuroscience is becoming increasingly relevant to our everyday lives. Rapidly advancing technologies offer unprecedented insights into the workings of the brain, transforming how we view ourselves by changing our understanding of concepts such as consciousness and free will.

The discoveries of neuroscientists have profound implications for policymakers and for people, and interest in how the brain works has never been so high. Neuroscientists are under increasing pressure to talk publicly about their research and its social implications, and most feel an obligation to do so. But communicating neuroscience effectively isn't easy.

“Neuroscience communication is driven by internal and external motivating factors,” says Judy Illes, professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of the Neuroethics Society. “One major internal motivator is the inherent belief amongst neuroscientists that they have a professional and moral responsibility to communicate their findings. Recognition is an external motivator—researchers who do communicate their work need to be recognized for their efforts.” 

Judy Illes portrait
Judy Illes 

During a symposium called Global Challenges for Neuroethics, held at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies meeting in July, Illes used research into the neurobiological basis of addiction to show how research can have implications for society, and how complex findings can be poorly communicated to the public. She used preliminary data from an analysis of recent stories about addiction in the U.S. and British mass media.

Neuroscientists are coming to view addiction as a disease, a view that also is gaining currency with people outside the scientific community, she said. But thinking of addiction in this way could have unintended consequences. For example, thinking of drug addicts as medically sick might stop name-callers from labeling them "junkies" but instead labeling them "sickos," not dropping labels altogether. Addicts might be coerced into treatments they might not choose themselves. Another danger of thinking about addiction solely in biological terms is that it may lead us to ignore the social factors that can contribute to creating addicts, Illes said.

Media coverage of addiction research often does not help matters. According to the analysis performed by Illes and her colleagues, the news headlines and stories about addiction make assertions about addiction being a disease, but contain very little useful information about the findings they are supposed to be reporting.

Neuroscientists must attend to the possible consequences of regarding addiction as a disease, and do all they can to counteract misinformation about brain research, she said. They can do so by actively engaging with the public, via lectures, interviews, writing, and chatting about their work as accurately and accessibly as they can.

Communicating science can be difficult, and for neuroscientists, it is particularly challenging because the subject matter—how our brains work—is highly complex. Research is often reported inaccurately because many journalists who cover neuroscience have little understanding of the field. Instead of enhancing the public understanding of neuroscience, media coverage of brain research often propagates misinformation. 

In addition, researchers currently have little incentive to engage with the public. While a growing number of researchers are willing to get out and explain their work, the institutions that employ them generally do not recognize their efforts, or give them credit for their public outreach. Researchers who try to popularize science also sometimes feel stigmatized by the rest of the scientific community, and some lose professional credibility.

Illes called urgently for a scientific culture shift to make neuroscience communication a priority, reflecting its increased relevance to society. In a paper published earlier this year in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, she and her colleagues outlined some courses of action, at both institutional and individual levels.

For example, research universities could develop merit systems that reward researchers who make an effort to communicate with the public, and could fund research into the outcomes and impact of various forms of science communication (essays versus videos, for example). They should foster the development of specialist neuroscience communicators and encourage all researchers to engage with the public. 

Institutions should also try to identify excellent communicators and nurture them, perhaps by giving them time off from research, teaching, and administrative duties so they can talk to civic groups or attend programs to further develop their communication skills. 

Individual neuroscientists can give public lectures and take part in discussions and debates. They can actively monitor news coverage of their field, develop relationships with journalists, and make themselves available to answer questions about research findings or to clarify ambiguous results, reducing the likelihood that the science and its implications are miscommunicated.

Online media outlets, such as blogs and podcasts, have radically transformed traditional print journalism by enabling anybody with internet access to communicate with ease. Blogs in particular offer researchers the opportunity to make their work easily accessible to the public, and a tiny minority of neuroscientists currently use them. Many neuroscience blogs are, however, too specialized for a general audience.

More people, especially those under 21, are growing reliant on the internet as a primary source of information. Using these media seems like the ideal way to enhance understanding of neuroscience for younger people, but very little research has yet been done into their effectiveness for communicating neuroscience.   

“There are different kinds of public outreach,” said Illes, “all of which deserve a proper framework by which they can be evaluated, like peer-reviewed papers or grants. Research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of blogs, Twitter, and other social media as a form of neuroscience communication, and we are working on this now.”