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Science communication in the biomedical sciences: challenges, opportunities and new approaches

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Andreas Prokop, Biology Professor at The University of Manchester, explains the rationale and content of a recent special issue in Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology, about communicating fundamental biomedical science.

The challenge we set ourselves

There are many excellent initiatives to improve biomedical communication, but surprisingly few have been publicised in biology or science communication journals, meaning that many examples of excellent work and important experiences are not shared to inspire and help others.  To overcome this, I recently collaborated with Sam Illingworth (Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University) to edit a special issue for Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology about science communication in the field of fundamental biomedical science. In that issue, we experimented with descriptive, less analytical article styles, as have also been developed in parallel by the new journal Research for All. Whilst providing potential templates for other journals, we hope that such articles help to bridge the current gap between biologists and academic science communicators. With this in mind, two articles of the issue are written by science communicators, explaining basic concepts and strategies in simple terms, alerting to the urgent need that articles in the field of science communication are made understandable to non-specialist readers. 

What is fundamental biomedical research and why should we communicate it?

Fundamental biomedical research concerns biological processes or phenomena, usually with a view to future medical applications. Since direct research in humans is restricted in its possibilities, biomedical research is typically performed in animal models including yeast, worms, fruit flies, frogs, zebrafish, chicks, or rodents. This research capitalises on the "deep homology" concept which states that many fundamental genes and their biological functions have been preserved across species, to a degree that even yeast genes can be replaced with human ones. Medical application of such research is obvious when addressing cancer, stem cells or neurodegeneration, but not for fundamental studies that investigate, for example, how certain organs develop in flies. Such research is often falsely seen to be solely of academic interest, where in fact it is an essential breeding ground for new understanding of gene functions or biological processes that can explain human disease and provide new paths to medical applications. To sustain this pipeline and rectify current political trends (which over-emphasise clinical investigation as a promising short-term revenue-generator), the importance of fundamental research must be well communicated to different audiences, including the general public, clinicians, and policymakers.

   

For almost every organ in humans there is a match in flies, and common genes regulate their development, organisation and function.

Challenges and opportunities

Communicating cancer, stem cell or neurodegeneration research will naturally appeal to audiences, but work on the cytoskeleton, Notch signalling or circadian rhythm presents a communication challenge. The terms are hard to understand and the benefits to society harder to envisage. Therefore, intelligent framing is required, with a development of narratives that make complex topics easy to understand. This will have a positive impact also on science education, since many aspects of fundamental biomedical research directly concern the biology school curriculum. These are important opportunities, but the development of the required communication strategies is usually left to scientists in their spare time, with little or no funding, and guided by common sense rather than science communication experts.  

Developing objective-driven long-term strategies

We were therefore motivated to produce our recent special issue, where we argue that significant improvements in science communication can be achieved with objective-driven initiatives based on long-term strategies, including an effective online presence and the development and sharing of high-quality resources. For example, two recent articles in the New York Times and Observer about the Nobel Prize awarded for discoveries in fruit flies, gained in quality through information taken from advocacy websites which were developed by an objective-driven long-term initiative promoting fruit fly research. Our special issue provides further examples of such initiatives, each setting very different objectives: engaging African scientists, communicating stem cells responsibly, establishing collaborations of scientists with teachers or with clinicians, and many more examples as listed in the editorial. Two further articles explain how learned societies or dedicated social platforms can further increase the impact of such initiatives and help to establish national or international networks in which the workload can be shared for the benefit of all.  

Embracing publication and interdisciplinary collaboration

We have learned that much can be gained from interdisciplinary collaborations; biologists can learn from communicators, while communicators can include a wider range of resources in their studies, and collaborate with existing biomedical initiatives to test new ideas and strategies in practice - all with a view to achieving the worthwhile goal of making fundamental science a more vibrant part of our society!

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