Shifting the paradigm: how social media is changing science

Despite being at the forefront of humanity’s quest for knowledge, the natural sciences remain relatively quiet amid the online cacophony.  All this is changing, however, and in a fascinating twist of fate, new media technologies are actually having a profound effect on the way scientists operate.

Saturn In Natural Colours
Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA)

The very fact that a science-based panel discussion featured in Berlin’s normally marketing-heavy Social Media Week is testament to the transformation of the way scientists and the public interact.

Consisting of some of Germany’s leading lights in the field of science communications, with a particular focus on space, the discussion was hosted by writer and social media expert Jens Best, and featured chemist and science journalist Lars Fischer, social media manager for Helmholtz Henning Krause, and communications officer for the European Space Agency Andreas Schepers.

According to the panel, it all started around six or seven years ago in the mid-noughties, when online social platforms began to emerge. Back then, it was often down to individuals working at scientific organisations, who got involved in social media on their own initiative. “Some people who were working in the team that communicated with astronauts decided to start communicating with the public too, via blogs, as an aside to their usual workload,” explaines Schepers. It was an immediate success, providing unprecedented insight into a previously inaccessible events and processes.

For Fischer, who works for Spektrum der Wissenschaft (Germany’s version of the Scientific American), “science has always been a relatively closed subject”. The opportunities presented by new media technologies were not ubiquitously welcomed by the scientific community. “It was the journalists who started blogging initially,” he says. “At first, scientists were reluctant to become involved.”

There is a caution among some within science that remains to this day. A combination of lack of time and resources, along with a general reluctance by many to be seen as ‘populist’, means that the science world’s ivory tower has taken longer to topple than that of other, more attention-hungry spheres.

Indeed, though the digital revolution is in full swing, in science – as in almost every other field – social media itself is an ongoing experiment. True to the methods of the discipline, “currently we are just doing, observing and analysing”, clarifies Schepers, “sooner or later we will have to professionalise the process.”

In the meantime, however, there’s a metamorphosis going on within the scientific community. As the platforms evolve, so too does the audience, but the audience is not just the public. This is very much a two-sided conversation, and scientists who have historically delivered knowledge into the ether are suddenly privy to previously silent voices.

This dialogue is definitely a good thing, argues Fischer. “Yes, scientists are confronted, and they should be.” It is this debate that sparks ideas and drives progress. “Social media already changes the way we, as scientific organisations, engage with media – because the media itself has changed”, Schepers adds.

A few token trolls notwithstanding, the panel is unanimously convinced that this online conversation has had overwhelmingly positive results. “Social media has helped to contextualise science and its role in society, and allowed us to explain what we are doing, why, and how it’s relevant to individuals,” posits Krause. “We can use these new tools to spread enthusiasm and encourage young people to get involved. This can only be a good thing for science.”

So, in the midsts of all this change – which, we are all agreed, is the only constant when it comes to social media – what does the future hold for science? According to Fischer, “people within and without need to realise that science is culture. The point is not fast cars and new gadgets; we do science because we want to know. We are curious, explorers, and it is this quest for knowledge and understanding that makes us human.”

Science should be central to our culture, not on the outskirts, and it is social media  that will facilitate this, just as science facilitated the technologies that gave birth to social media. It’s a beautiful story, and after this insightful discussion, it suddenly stops being ironic and becomes the inevitable narrative of this infinitely complex and pioneering field.