We spend a lot of time talking about “access”, particularly with the goal of informing the general public about the discoveries and the importance of academic research. While the value of making highly technical research papers available remains open to debate (see the comments here for the latest round), researchers themselves can play a much bigger role in outreach efforts. Doing this well, however, is no easy task.
As a former science books editor, I can’t tell you how many proposals I received from researchers looking to write about their complex subject area for a lay audience. With rare exceptions, these proposals would fall apart in the actual writing of a sample chapter. Each author would run into the common problem of either assuming that the reader knew important background information (resulting in a book that was beyond most lay readers) or explaining those basic concepts to the reader (what is DNA?). This usually turned the book into a boring textbook and lost the reader’s attention before ever getting to the interesting stuff.
This is why we have such reverence for figures like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The ability to translate complex scientific concepts into understandable and entertaining stories is a rare gift.
Research institutions put a great deal of effort into trying to tell these sorts of stories. Public support, particularly through donations, is a hugely important channel through which research gets funded. Beyond the direct donations, having an informed public that recognizes the importance of research is critical for continued governmental support.
Johns Hopkins University has done a really nice job over the last year or so creating their series of “Science: Out of the Box” videos featuring their researchers explaining what they do to the general public. Rather than a dry lecture, each scientist was given a box of toys and challenged to explain their research using them as props. This challenge gives the researchers a relatable and entertaining framing device to help keep them grounded. The results are both informative and compelling and serve as a good example of someone getting this type of outreach right.
In the sample below, Andrew Ewald (full disclosure, a friend and former labmate) explains his lab’s cancer metastasis research using a few cans of Play-Doh.