On Earth Day, many of us marched in the name of science. We did so in cities across the world. In a time when science is regularly dismissed by our government leaders, the excitement and public support of that march was inspiring. However, the March for Science did not halt the ongoing attacks on science. Obviously, this feels disheartening. However, like other times in life, when things get bad, there are opportunities for much needed growth. Now is the time to critically examine the status quo and identify ways to make positive changes.
One change that is gaining momentum recently, is the idea that scientists should communicate directly with the public by writing op-eds in newspapers or magazines. In the words of our President elect, Dr. Sherry Pagoto, “Op-eds provide a huge opportunity to influence public opinion which has implications for policy, since legislators are affected by their constituent’s views. Op-eds are also more impactful than form letters or phone calls to legislative offices because they are exposed to a far larger audience. Legislators pay attention to op-eds and if you follow the op-ed pages you’ll see they frequently use this format to influence public opinion themselves.”
Writing op-eds may be the right answer, strategically, but it may seem nearly impossible to find the time. Additionally, many faculty may feel less comfortable writing to a lay public audience than a scientific audience. This brings me to the opportunity for change and growth that I mentioned earlier. Every day, faculty work with students and trainees who are eager for ways to make a difference. What if writing op-eds became a part of the learning process? What if faculty taught this skill in the classroom and encouraged this work in our laboratory?
Scientists have the opportunity, right now, to change our culture. Students — who is in a better position to bridge this gap than you? Students are early enough in their careers that using too much academic jargon is less of an issue. In fact, students may be at an ideal career stage to communicate scientific information to the public in a more digestible form.
Let’s also consider the potential benefits to students, for getting an op-ed published. Obviously, there is the positive recognition of their work, the opportunity to have some “fame”, and a tangible addition to their resumé. It may even be a skill that they come to value and enjoy. Unlike our submissions to peer review journals, we hear about the decisions on op-eds much sooner and see them online in what seems like the blink of an eye. As Dr. Jim Sallis, our immediate Past-President states, “Op-eds are a good way to share some of your findings with the broader community. Social media and sharing links means that op-eds in even small papers can have wide reach.” It gives students the opportunity to efficiently share information with the lay public.
In closing, as the unprecedented attacks on science continue, we need to consider embedding a role as a scientific activist into our role as scientific educators and students. Now is the time for change. There are existing tools to guide both faculty and student scientists to write compelling op-eds. Faculty, I urge you to consider ways to integrate an op-ed writing assignment into your curriculum. Is there a class you will be teaching next year that you could integrate this assignment into? Students, I urge you to bring this idea up to your faculty as a way to shift the paradigm for scientists. You are the future of science and what steps we take next are critical.