Floyd Shockley started off his undergraduate career as a pre-med student with every intention of going to medical school. Late into his degree, he took a few courses in entomology and was immediately hooked. He went on to earn a master’s in insect-plant interactions and host plant resistance, as well as a doctoral degree in beetle systematics. Shockley now works at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as collections manager of the Entomology Department.
What does it mean to be a collections manager?
I have a diverse suite of job responsibilities, just because that’s the nature of collections management. I have curatorial responsibility, but it’s not at the individual drawer level, it’s for the whole collection. I have a tremendous amount of administrative responsibilities, so anything like approving transactions paperwork for loans and acquisitions and donations. I handle the largest part of the departmental budget, that I mainly use for supplies and equipment. I do my own research, still working on beetle systematics. I’m interested in fungus-feeding beetles in particular, always have been and probably always will be. Then, in addition to the oversight of the department, I’m also the primary contact for most media and social media. I do almost all of the department’s outreach.
Do you think it’s important for scientists to have that link with the media and the public, to communicate about their work?
I think it’s absolutely critical for scientists to communicate. I think that we as a body have been historically bad at it, not because we’re bad at communicating. We’re very good at communicating—to other scientists, but that doesn’t get the people that need it most. Some researchers are doing very concentrated, high-level science that would be difficult to turn into something palatable to the public. I think anybody in the U.S. right now who’s paying attention to the White House briefings understands the importance of being able to take actual science and turn it into something understandable. Catastrophes can happen if that isn’t translated properly.
Why do you think that kind of communication is so important?
Most public institutions, and even the Smithsonian, are federally funded. We’re funded by the taxpayers. So, it’s important for us to make sure that the people who are paying our salaries understand the science that we’re doing. That’s something that we’ve haven’t been terribly good at. Science communication to a generalized audience is a relatively young concept. It’s only been around for about 15-20 years, and it’s really picked up since the advent of the Internet and social media. Those two things kind of front loaded our need to try and make science more than just communicating to our immediate scientific peers and colleagues, but rather to everyone.
Is there a reason why scientists might sometimes have trouble communicating about their work?
It’s something that a lot of scientists weren’t originally trained to do. We weren’t typically taught during a graduate program about how to communicate to the public. We are very rarely interviewed by a media savvy interviewer. If it’s just a panel discussion led by a scientist, in front of other scientists, then we don’t have to worry about using jargon or trying to help an audience unfamiliar with the topic to make a connection to their own lives. That’s something we need to do a better job with. We’re getting better at it, but not universally. There are some people who are very good science communicators, and then there’s some that are really good scientists. There’s a very small number that are great at both.
What about the general state of science communication in the U.S. right now?
I think that in many ways, what allowed for a huge expansion of interactions—the Internet, email, social media—has been great for providing accessibility of science to everybody. The problem is that because everybody can get to it, everybody is interpreting it in different ways. That causes a real problem. It’s almost as if there’s an overwhelming amount of information that’s flowing around out there. Unless you’ve been trained to parse that into recognizably valid, published things, versus downstream citations or review articles, versus a Wikipedia page, versus just a meme on social media… The public hasn’t been trained in good science. Basically, STEM is still a weakness for us as a nation. Because of that, they don’t have the critical thinking skills and the logical deduction skills to take science straight from the scientist and understand what that means.
So, part of the issue is that scientists aren’t trained to communicate, and the public isn’t trained to receive information?
That’s right. It is a little bit of both. I’ve always approached it very differently because I’ve been involved with communicating science to the public for a long time, almost 25 years now. I always take a step back when somebody asks me a question, especially when I’m giving a tour and they ask me something that needs a pretty technical answer. The first thing I do in my head is think, well, how would I explain that to my grandma, who only made it through the eighth grade? How would I make her understand this, using concepts that don’t sound condescending but make the science accessible for people across a wide variety of educational backgrounds?
What then, makes a good science communicator?
I’ve found some of the most effective science communicators to be people who had a communication background and became a scientist later, as opposed to trying to take a scientist and make them a communicator. Both are possible, but I’ve always found if you have someone who really knows how to read an audience, read a room, and respond to it, and you teach that person how to do science, then you really have something special. It’s about being able to recognize your audience, recognize their level of experience, and speaking to that without sounding like a stuffy scientist talking down to the class. I think people don’t have a lot of patience when they feel things are being dumbed down for them. You have to strike that balance.
Have you seen any steps people have been taking to improve science communication?
It was only 20-30 years ago that NSF built into their application process the requirement to not only talk about the intellectual merit of the science you want to do, but also the broader impacts. How is this going to impact society and other people? Why should people care? Some of those science proposals can be pretty esoteric, very specific. Now, even when we aren’t talking about applying for an NSF proposal, thinking about how this benefits the general population is always in the back of our minds. We still have to make sure that we’re doing science that matters, not just science for science’s sake. So, I think part of it is because we as scientists are improving our ability to communicate with general audiences. But we’re also forming more partnerships with people who do it better than us, so they are helping us get better at communication.
Do you think that things like citizen science have a role in this improvement?
At least in entomology, citizen science allows the public to actually be a part of the science, as opposed to just receiving the science. It gives them a personal stake. It’s engaging for them to be able to interact with a scientist at a reputable institution at a professional level, even if they themselves don’t have an advanced degree. They provide data points; we can’t collect everything from everywhere. Getting the extra eyes and ears and hands on the ground, looking for things, is excellent. More importantly, I think citizen science is an important first step in developing a scientifically literate society. They’re learning how to do a little bit of science so that they can understand the broader concepts of the science they’re participating in. There are probably others that think citizen science is a waste of the scientist’s time. I don’t believe that.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Working in a museum, we’re already sort of geared toward trying to be accessible. As a museum, we have exhibits, we have programming and tours. They all sort of speak to engaging the public and getting the public excited about science. In many ways, that’s the most important thing we can do in science communication. It’s not just about teaching, it’s getting people excited. It’s getting people to ask questions and thinking about how they would answer those questions. That’s the thing that won’t come naturally to people, because that’s not how they were taught at school, but that’s sort of the thing that’s really going to turn the tide.
This interview was conducted via Zoom | Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash