Science Talk Q&A (Part VI): Biggest Science Conversations on the Horizon

From climate change, vaccines and virus developments to artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and diversity and inclusion: science is saturated with new research and technological advancements. So which conversations can we expect to steal the limelight over the next few years? 

Science Talk’s Dr. Allison Coffin and Dr. Kiki Sanford sat down with Jessica McNellis from s2s Public Relations and Communications to discuss the biggest conversations in science communications to watch.

What conversations in science will we be watching play out over the next 5 years?

Dr. Kiki Sanford: The conversations I think we will be hearing the most about are climate change, vaccines, genetically modified organisms, particularly as we embark on medical treatments for people, artificial intelligence, and the DIY-bio movement. And while that’s a lot to keep an eye on, there are major shifts happening in each bucket. 

For example, while climate change has been a major discussion for years, I don’t think we will have the same conversations we have had in the past. At this point, it’s understood the climate is changing, carbon dioxide is increasing globally, temperatures globally are increasing. The discussion will now become more nuanced about what we can do about it. People are already communicating in more of an action-based way, asking questions like, “What are concrete steps that can be taken to change the outcome?” This is actually similar to the conversations we see around COVID-19 – the idea of integrating human behavior and how our actions will impact the outcome. 

Dr. Allison Coffin: Intertwined in all of these issues, diversity, equity and inclusion conversations must continue to be more prevalent over the next few years. Science Magazine recently published a piece on citizen science and community science, and called for more diversity and inclusivity in both areas. Citizen science is often considered academic-focused projects where non-scientists help gather data – think backyard bird surveys – while community science elevates local interests and is driven by community members, not necessarily formal scientific processes. Science communication is sorely needed to increase representation in citizen science initiatives, and to engage local communities in planning and executing community science programs.

When it comes to emerging areas of scientific research, such as genetic modification and the DIY-bio movement, what are you most interested in watching develop?

KS: With genetic modification and DIY-bio, people are making the tools of biology personal. The democratization of science has the potential to allow people to take medicine into their own hands. However, this is also fraught with the peril of untested treatments that could endanger people’s lives. We are going to see a lot of interesting decisions that will impact everyone as the government navigates the space of allowing personal freedom while still trying to regulate safety. It is a real “Wild West” situation at the moment because we have never seen knowledge and materials so readily available before. That said, it feels like we are on the brink of a major change in medicine and health that will come about because of the ability to personalize treatments thanks to genetic technologies.

AC: There are so many opportunities for genetic modification to benefit society, particularly in the realm of personalized medicine. Single-gene diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease are exciting targets for gene therapy, including CRISPR – this gene therapy could literally save lives. I think science communicators have an important role to play in the ethical discussions around human genetic modification, brokering conversations and helping different groups listen to each other, rather than talking past one another. As a society we need to wrestle with the tough decisions around where to draw the line with human gene manipulation.

Frankly, the DIY-bio movement scares me. So much of the current DIY-bio attitude seems like showmanship. I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion action movie, waiting for the car chase to end in a massive pile-up. 

If you could only choose one, what scientific development are you personally following and would like to see more focused attention over the next few years? Why is this the most important issue to you right now?

KS: This is such a difficult question to answer because really I’m interested in how science will affect humanity, and there are lots of places where scientific advancements have the potential to benefit society or influence it to a detriment. Artificial intelligence is one research area where we are already seeing it make our lives easier, but conversations are ongoing about the problems inherent in a lack of diversity and representation among the people doing the work and the datasets used to train intelligences. Will we be able to manage our biases enough to enable the incredible potential of AI or are we already on our way to writing our dystopian sci-fi future? We need to open our eyes to the bioethical situations that will arise if we do nothing.

AC: As a lab scientist, I’d like to see more focused attention on the need to fund science as a major priority. COVID-19 vaccines rolled out so quickly and were so effective, in large part because of years of research into mRNA vaccines before the pandemic even started. When we start a research project, we don’t know when it will benefit us. It could be the next year, the next decade, or the next century. Industry funding isn’t sufficient because of this uncertain timeline. We need sustained government investment. Again, science communication is key here. Science communicators help diverse stakeholder groups understand the scientific process and how funding today can transform lives tomorrow.

What resources do you rely on to stay up to date on the latest scientific news and developments?

AC: I read the front end of Science Magazine over breakfast. Totally nerdy, I know, but the front pages are full of short, non-specialist science news combined with longer perspective pieces that allow me to dig in without knowing the technical details of the field. I also read The Conversation, which has fascinating non-technical pieces written by experts. And of course, This Week in Science!, Kiki’s show, highlights the biggest, and sometimes just the weirdest, science news each week.

KS: Because I have a weekly science news program, I am constantly swimming in science news. I skim websites that publish scientific press releases, like Eurekalert and PhysOrg. I’m on multiple institutional and publisher email lists, check in on pre-print archives, and lurk on Reddit science groups. And, of course, I follow other science news sources, like The Atlantic, The Verge, Gizmodo, and science reporters and scientists on Twitter. 

This is the sixth Science Talk Q&A in the series. The other Q&As can be found on the Science Talk blog.

Science Talk is a non-profit organization bringing together individuals passionate about science to share ideas about how science should be best communicated. Each year, Science Talk hosts a conference where scientists, journalists, celebrities, politicians, students, and anyone who loves science can convene and share their expertise through workshops and presentations on how to better communicate science to…”everyone.”

About the Authors:

Dr. Allison Coffin, PhD, is a neuroscience professor at Washington State University in Vancouver and co-founder and President of Science Talk. Dr. Kiki Sanford, PhD, is the host of the podcast ‘This Week in Science’ and VP of Public Relations at Science Talk.

Jessica McNellis is the Media Relations Manager at s2s Public Relations and Communications, working with emerging tech and biotech startups in the Pacific Northwest on all elements of the public relations equation.

Read the original conversation published on Science Talk’s blog: here.

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