Nanoscientists Among Us... as Science Communicators

“The communication of scientific findings with lay audiences has taken on heightened importance in recent years and scientists are now frequently being asked to play the role of public communicator for their work.” – Michael A. Cacciatore

Gold Nanocages all in a row. Transmission Electron Micrograph, prepared by Paige Brown Jarreau.

In a recent letter in Nature Nanotechnology, Anthony Dudo and colleagues survey nanoscientists as public science communicators. I can especially appreciate their results, because I used to be a nanoscientist myself! That was my past life. In fact, if you look back to the early days of this very blog, I was often writing about nanoparticles for drug delivery and surface plasmon resonance – oh the quirky experiences of being really, really small!

“In nanotechnology specifically, the US federal government has cut funding for the ‘education and societal dimensions’ of the subject from US$41.9 million in 2012 to just US$35.5 million in 2013, which suggests that outreach will need to be done in a more cost-effective manner. In the face of diminished resources for public outreach, an even greater emphasis is likely to be placed on researchers themselves to publicize and promote the value of their work.” – Michael A. Cacciatore

This must be a special struggle for nanoscientists, who often toil away in laboratories with powerful microscopes, while friends and family haven’t the faintest idea what they really do. I know. The usual response when I told people I worked on nanomaterials was – “so have you invented nano-robots that you can inject into people’s bloodstreams yet?” I’d say, do cancer-detecting gold nanoparticles count?!

I started my science blog at Nature Network while working in a nanotechnology lab at Washington University in St. Louis, partly just to see if I could successfully explain to family and friends what I did in the lab all day. Which was mostly boiling mixtures of silver and gold salts – ha!

Today, nanomaterials are ALL around us, and yet so few citizens are able to appreciate the chemistry, physics and other properties of these incredibly small elements. I went into Lululemon the other day, and found myself laughing as an employee tried to sell me a “silver nanoparticle” shirt that was “odor-fighting” and antimicrobial. I was like yeah, I know how that works, and it probably doesn’t work like you think it does.

“The silver is bonded with textile fibers through a proprietary process and woven into finished products to create an ionic shield that inhibits the growth of bacteria on the surface of the fabric. It provides permanent protection between launderings, lasts the life of the product and since the antimicrobial is inherent in the fabric, it does not require modification in staff behavior.” – Noble Biomaterials

First of all, I can’t see how the silver is “permanently bound” – silver nanoparticles are quite prone to oxidation and leaching of silver ions – meaning that over time, silver nanoparticles are much more prone to degradation than are, say, gold nanoparticles, unless they are specially coated. I also can’t find a reference anywhere as to whether this technology really is “nano” or not – and the size and shape of the silver material is crucial to its antimicrobial properties. A hunk of silver sitting on your desk doesn’t work the same way – and will not repeal bacteria in the same way – as tiny silver particles smaller than the eye can see. I’m tempted to get in touch with the manufacturer of the silver textile fibers in Lululemon’s Silverescent shirts, just to see exactly how these products work and what the evidence is for their antimicrobial properties.

But I am getting side-tracked. Back to Dudo’s survey results of nanoscientists!

“Through the use of survey data, the researchers find that nanoscientists engage in more frequent public communication than might otherwise be expected and that they have overall positive outlooks when it comes to engaging with journalists and lay audiences.” – Michael A. Cacciatore

Dudo and colleagues surveyed 216 nanoscientists affiliated with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN). The researchers asked nanoscientists about the amount of contact they had with media professionals within the 5 years prior to 2013, and the nature of these media contacts. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the nanoscientists who responded to the survey noted that they had at least one interaction with a media professional within this time period, and the scientists mostly reported these contacts as having positive impact on their professional lives.

Nearly 80% of nanoscientists surveyed said that they had participated in one or more direct public communication activities between 2008 and 2013, such as giving a lecture or organizing a public science event. (I’ve personally volunteered at NanoDays for several universities – a great activity for those interested in nanotech!) Even more positively, 75% of nanoscientists surveyed agreed these public communication efforts have had a positive impact on their professional lives.

It seems that nanoscientists are engaging in public communication of their science more often, and with more zeal, than we might have thought. Go nano!

Dudo and colleagues also looked at what kinds of things can predict whether nanoscientists engage with the public or media professionals.

“[O]ur data suggest that nanoscientists who regarded public communication as important for the welfare of society were more likely to intend to engage in … public communication activities.” – Nature Nanotechnology

Nanoscientists who perceived professional benefits from creating media buzz about their research (such as attracting research funding or more quality students) were also more willing to participate in public communication activities. This highlights the need for institutional support of science outreach – such as outreach aspects of tenure promotion.

“Nanoscientists who spend more time using online tools (for example, microblogs, social networks, forums) to communicate about science were more likely to express a willingness to participate in public communication through media professionals.” – Nature Nanotechnology

Another interesting finding - being plugged into social media appears to make scientists more receptive to discussion with journalists and other media professionals.

I also went to the paper’s supplemental data, because I was curious what platforms the nanoscientists surveyed were using to get their science news and communicate their research. I’ve plotted Dudo and colleagues’ data below. (Only averages and standard deviations were provided, which I used to make these bar and error-bar charts.)

I find it particularly interesting that these scientists seem to be getting their science news from other science blogs to the same extent as or more than they are from TV, radio or micro-blogging sites such as Twitter. Magazines seem to be the greatest source of science news for these nanoscientists. I wondering whether this includes the news sections of scientific journals??

Data from Dudo et al. 2014

As far as the media that nanoscientists use to communicate about science, they don't seem to be particularly active on blogs or social media (as far as using these to communicate about science on a daily basis). However, they are using these mediums, including blogs, to some extent. Also, it is interesting that they indicate using social networks such as Facebook (and maybe networks like ResearchGate??) to communicate about science more than they do Twitter or blogs. Although I'm guessing, from the look of it, these differences are not significant, and some nanoscientists could be using blogs every day, while others aren't using them at all.


Have any thoughts?