Before being hired at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Erika Gardner was a biology student. During her undergraduate career, she realized that she was more interested in plants than in medicine, or any other part of biology. After spending some time interning in an herbarium, Gardner earned a master’s degree in botany from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She now works as a collections manager in the U.S. National Herbarium.
What are your thoughts about science communication in the U.S. right now?
It’s terrible. One word, terrible. Nobody knows who to believe, or what makes you an expert. Just because I have a degree in botany, is anybody going to listen to me about plants? My own family members know that I have this expertise and this skill set, but still don’t regard me as someone who has expertise in the field. It’s kind of hard convincing them about something I know, because they don’t believe that I know. That’s bizarre. I don’t understand the thinking, because they know me. These people raised me. It’s not like I’m making things up, or anything.
Why do you think people have a hard time trusting the expertise of scientists?
It’s not quite fear, but people don’t want to admit that they don’t know something, or that somebody can know more than them. It’s a form of intimidation. People are intimidated because they want to act like they know more. So, their fight or flight instincts kick in. When faced with something they don’t know, they’re going to fight instead of backing off and listening to the information. The thing is, who’s to say anyone is an expert? What makes someone an expert? A lot of people just have this distrust in others.
Do you think scientists sometimes have a hard time talking about their work?
One hundred percent. I think that is a ginormous issue. I work with a lot of curators, and they’re not very extroverted. They’re not people persons, so I think they have a hard time communicating their research with the public. Not everyone can do it. They’re smart, they’re brilliant people, but I think that interfacing with the public is where the breakdown happens. I think people who are good at explaining things clearly and simply for people to understand, without technical terminology, are the kind of people we need to help us communicate our research.
Does having a science background change how we communicate and consume information about science?
Having a background in science helps us look at evidence. We’re seeing it right now. People are coming out with these “studies.” You look at the numbers, and they’re not even statistically significant—like, you reported on four people. You can’t do that. Scientists know what sound data should look like, or where errors are. Whereas, somebody else who doesn’t have a science background will see, oh, four people were cured from something-something. They’re going to think that is sound science. A science background gives us the information and knowledge to understand where information is coming from and how to ask questions. To say, hey, that looks weird. People without a science background don’t know what to look for.
Is there anything about science communication that you would change, maybe to fix this issue?
I wish science was integrated in our daily lives, instead of the media showing us the coolest Instagram photo or what the Kardashians are doing. I think they should be showing us super simple things in science, like even how a plant grows—that’s science. That’s the thing, people are now going to plant their own plants. That’s the thing to do when we’re in quarantine. But most people don’t even have a basic background in how plants grow and what their requirements are. Yeah, you give plants water and they grow, but there’s more to it. You can’t plant everything right now, because some things grow faster than others with the seasons changing. That’s the news we should be getting. We should be fed science information that’s really basic and that you don’t even recognize as science.
Do you think that citizen science has a part in that integration?
They are great foundation projects for people to start with. That’s a great way to get people interested about science. We need more programs based on involving the community. The other night, I was talking with my partner about how this whole quarantine has kind of shifted my role. You know, my daily routine at work was working physically with museum collections. I didn’t interface with the public. I had some thoughts about putting on programs for the public before this whole quarantine happened. I was preparing to do a little public outreach thing showing people about sunflower families and how to press plants and identify them and dissect them. I had this whole thing planned, and then this happened. Alright, what do I do now?
So, what have you been working on?
I have to work from home in order to keep my job going. I’m doing things that are still specimen-based with our database, but now, my job is about getting information to the public about what I do. I’m working with the education and outreach department to put on a program showing families how to press flowers. They can do it for their own collection, but I’m also teaching them why we do it at the museum and how to display them archivally at home. It’s a Victorian arts and crafts thing, but it’s also science. I think it’s really interesting that right now, in this moment, the most important thing is getting information out to the public by interacting with them. It’s kind of neat to see that shift in explaining why museum collections are important and what people can be doing to notice the nature around them, even in their own backyard.
In your opinion, how has the current pandemic situation affected the future of science communication?
Right now, it’s the virus. Before the virus, it was climate change. We were told this is happening, but nobody wanted to listen. So, now we’re in this predicament because nobody was listening to scientists. The information’s there, but people don’t want to hear it, I think. It’s hard to predict what the future will hold. Science needs to be less intimidating. It needs to not make people fearful. I think people always have that mad scientist—the scientist is out to get you—mentality. I think that needs to change. We need to put a friendly face on science, so that people can know that scientists are not maniacal and doing weird stuff. People need to see that it’s approachable and that it’s okay to can interface with scientists, like this, all the time.