Helping Public Understand Science

Rutgers University

A Rutgers researcher discusses how the pandemic has shown that now, more than ever, scientists must be able to communicate their findings to the public

With mistrust in science rampant in American society, it’s more crucial than ever for scientists to be able to communicate to the public. Daniel Kadouri of the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine researches the disease-fighting potential of predatory bacteria, microbes that devour germs immune to antibiotics. His findings could help halt a global epidemic of drug-resistant bacteria that has led to a rise in untreatable infections and illnesses.

Kadouri, a faculty member in the Department of Oral Biology, who in the last 10 years received multi-million-dollar grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, has lectured on the topic at the Pentagon, NASA and the U.S. Army as well as at institutions throughout the world. He emphasizes the importance of clearly communicating with the public about scientific research.

How has COVID-19 highlighted the need for the public to understand scientific research?

We need the public’s help to control this pandemic. It is vital that we build trust between the public and the scientific community. Scientists should inform the public of what we know as well as what we don’t know. Sometimes this can be difficult as people view changes in the guidelines that researchers and physicians provide as a lack of consistency. They don’t understand that research is a dynamic thing and we need to change the guidelines as we obtain new information. The use of masks – the advice early on to not wear them, now the importance of wearing them – is a good example of this.

Scientists also need to understand that ultimately we are public servants. The work that we do is funded, for the most part, by taxpayers. It is our obligation to show the public what we do with the funds and not take their trust for granted.

How difficult do you find explaining your own research to non-scientists?

It is not difficult. Drug-resistant infections are an issue that most people know something about. Everyone understands what infections and antibiotics are. Many people have already heard about antibiotic resistance from the news. For years, people viewed bacteria as a negative thing but that’s started to change. They know about probiotics, and they understand that bacteria can be a good thing that can help keep people healthy. If people see a cat hunting a bird, they understand predation. So, explaining our approach of using bacteria to prey on other bacteria is somewhat straightforward.

How do you adapt your own communication style in response to different audiences?

As most of my funding came from the Department of Defense, I give talks to military scientific and non-scientific audiences, including military researchers at Walter Reed, cadets at West Point and Army personnel and civilians working at the Pentagon.

I try to give more background when speaking to a lay audience. So, I won’t go deep into the genetics and biological pathways that are involved in predation but emphasize more the big picture and how we can use the technology to our advantage.

When talking to a scientific audience, I give more experimental data to support our hypothesis. People in the military understood the problem we were trying to solve first-hand since drug-resistant pathogens are something they were and are dealing with.

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