Why I do #scicomm

An adaptation of my Society of Biology Science Communication Award talk (2014):

I’d like to invite you to do something that I ask of everyone I talk to about science: Consider for a moment, what it means to be a scientist.

For the last few years I have considered myself to be a scientist. But what does that really mean?

I think it’s quite a hard question to answer. I’m sure we’d all come up with something slightly different.

The simplest answer for me is “someone who asks questions about the world”. And who seeks answers to those questions, too.

The thing is, I think that makes us all scientists. I don’t just mean my audience here. I mean everyone.

Because when I go into primary schools to talk about my research on sex & reproduction, I’m asked questions like:

How do babies start growing?

Do baby animals grow in the same way as baby people?

Why do chickens lay eggs but people get pregnant?

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And when I go into secondary schools – after they’ve recovered from their amusement at me introducing myself as a sperm biologist – I’m asked questions like:

Why do men produce so many sperm when you only need one to fertilise an egg?

Why are sperm from different animals so different in shape & size?

What does infertile really mean?

And when I talk to people at science festivals or community events, I’m asked questions like:

How much can my lifestyle influence my fertility?

Why do some endangered species breed so poorly in captivity?

If we freeze sperm and eggs from species on the brink of extinction, will we be able to bring them back in the future?

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These are all questions at the very heart of my subject. Questions that top reproductive biologists are asking every day. Insightful, important questions.

So I think to myself: If we, as professional scientists, aren’t out there, talking to people at all levels, engaging them in conversations about our research, trying to answer their questions but, if we can’t, explaining why we can’t, talking about the process of science, how we get to our answers and how we assess our confidence in those answers, encouraging people not to simply believe what we tell them and what they read, not to simply fill their brains up with facts, but to remain questioning, inquisitive, critical… if we’re not out there doing that, then who is?

The problem is, scientists today are incredibly busy. It’s an extremely competitive world and even though I love spending time in schools and other public arenas, talking about science and what it means to be a scientist, I sometimes worry that I should be spending that time on my research instead.

That’s why I think awards like the Society of Biology Science Communication Award are important. They give recognition for this extra work that so many scientists do. There are so many brilliant scientists who, in addition to their research, are working so hard to bring their science to the public in one way or another. These awards really help the raise the profile of this aspect of being a scientist.

We need to remember what it is that keeps science going – the people who keep funding it and the new generations of brilliant scientists who will pave the way in the future. We owe it to science to keep those people engaged.

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