Making sense about the impact of science

In 1998, a doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent research paper in The Lancet incorrectly linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The paper attracted global media attention, led scores of parents to deny the vaccine to their children, reduced ‘herd immunity’ to these diseases, and led to an increase in the incidence of all three. The most worrisome was measles, which can blind and even kill unvaccinated children. Some parents of children with autism, desperate to identify a cause, latched onto the research and pushed it further at every opportunity, particularly through pressure groups that sprung up.

When the truth of Wakefield’s pseudo-science was revealed, The Lancet first partially and then fully retracted the paper. Wakefield was struck off the General Medical Council. And slowly but surely the public health authorities restored confidence in the MMR vaccine in particular and vaccination in general. Herd immunity was restored, and infection with three very preventable diseases fell.


How the British Medical Journal reported Wakefield’s fraudulent research


As well as common sense – and scientific fact – prevailing, the other good thing to come out of the Wakefield debacle was the birth of an excellent organisation called Sense About Science, which exists at the intersection between science and the media. Sense About Science helps scientists – and particularly young scientists – to report their findings responsibly to the media (unlike Wakefield and his PR team did); and it helps journalists, increasingly stretched for time, to report scientific findings responsibly and in context (unlike many, many media outlets in the case of this story).

Sense About Science is on a mission to promote the gold standard of peer review in academic journals, and to help the media – and so the public – understand nuanced concepts such as relative versus absolute risk. Plus its campaigns and exposés – such as the now legendary “homeopathy to treat malaria” – are helping to shift the agenda.

For many years, I’ve been a passionate supporter and advocate of Sense About Science. In an organisation, it encapsulates so much of what I hold to be true and right about the roles and responsibilities individuals, professionals, media, and society have in communicating science.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of training some of the new generation of postdoctoral researchers in the art of storytelling. We covered story structure and why people respond to stories above reams of facts and statistics. We looked at the need to be simple, avoid jargon, and why it’s important to blend the rational and the emotional. We shared why telling stories about people matters so much, and how to avoid the Curse of Knowledge – the fact that it’s impossible to unlearn what you know and why it’s really difficult (but also really important) not to assume your audience knows your subject in anywhere near the detail you do.

What I found so encouraging and heartening about the session, run with a group of research scientists at the beginning of their careers, is that they really do get the importance and craft of storytelling – why it matters and how to do it. The success of the Brexit campaign and the failure of Remain’s data-heavy “Project Fear” led New Scientist to conclude late last June: “For reason to triumph, scientists need to learn to engage with emotion.” My training cohort really got this.

Scientists are increasingly required to report on the real-world impact that their research has “beyond the lab” – to secure funding, to find collaborators, and in the U.K. to secure core Government funding in the five yearly Research Excellence Framework or REF. Impact is very much the Zeitgeist of modern academia, and our sister company Insights for Impact advises many academic institutions on how to identify, develop, and communicate impact.

Academic research is by its very nature complex, although using the principles and tools of storytelling to talk about that research means it doesn’t have to sound complex. This is not about dumbing down, it’s about understanding who you’re talking to – who you’re trying to influence – and tailoring your message in clear, simple, impactful language. And very definitely not following another trend that’s been growing in the past 120 years. For according to recent research published in Times Higher Education, scientific abstracts – the ‘elevator pitch’ of the academic paper – are becoming progressively harder to read and so more difficult to understand.

On the strength of the clear communication I saw and heard from the next generation of academics yesterday, the message about the imperative of clear storytelling is getting through. But it’s the responsibility of everyone involved with ensuring that academic research genuinely does have the transformative impact it should have on broader society, to keep on telling those stories. Simply. Clearly. Coherently. And succinctly.