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Opinion: UCLA should implement science communication requirement to combat misinformation


Young Hall, which houses the chemistry and biochemistry departments, is pictured. Students in STEM fields should take a required communication class. (Daily Bruin file photo)


As the public increasingly relies on scientists for counsel on global issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists must be prepared to respond to that need amid the rising tide of misinformation.

The pandemic revealed the risk and imminent danger of spreading misinformation as pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, including those embraced by anti-vaccine and anti-mask groups, proliferated online.

As an educational institution and one of the leading research universities in the world, UCLA supplies science, technology, engineering and math students with various lab opportunities. Although such opportunities are vital to the success of students in STEM fields, UCLA notably lacks any requirements for communication courses specifically for students in these fields. But such a requirement would promote a more interdisciplinary approach amongst the sciences and give students the valuable skills needed to achieve tangible change in the world.

There is no doubt that UCLA is well equipped with the resources and necessary funding to make science communication courses part of the requirements STEM students must fulfill. In fact, some courses like this already exist.

The Environment 150 course, titled “Environmental Journalism, Science, Communication and New Media,” is taught in the spring by Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

“The key tools that I teach the students and that we practice may sound surprising and they sound perhaps pretty simple,” Christensen said. “(But) you can improve on them in the course – one quarter-long course – but also throughout your life and career. And those three tools are empathy, narrative and strategy.”

While his course is geared toward environmental science students, he said that improving communication skills with general audiences is applicable and vital to all scientific disciplines, especially because scientists are often unsure how to keep audiences engaged with their work.

“One of the main challenges is that some scientists think that stories involve embellishing or hiding facts in order to create a good story,” Christensen said. “They believe that storytelling necessarily has elements of fiction.”

Science communication, however, can bridge the gap between the objectivity that the scientific community values and the storytelling effort necessary for good communication.

Christensen added that empathizing with one’s audience is highly significant when it comes to polarizing topics like climate change.

“It’s important for us to be able to try to understand the perspective of folks, people who have different beliefs and understandings, if we want to have any hope of communicating with them,” Christensen said.

This is especially true for the many science students at UCLA who plan to work with policymakers, industry leaders or even become leaders themselves.

“Part of our duty is to share the knowledge that we generate, whether that’s from faculty or from students, and communicate it with the people that can use that knowledge to make a big difference,” said David Colgan, director of communications at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Angelynn Nguyen, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and political science student, said a science communication class can help encourage future generations to write more comprehensively.

“I think the issue with science, especially verbal communication but also written communication, is that it’s very convoluted most of the time,” Nguyen said. “(Published papers) just throw a bunch of very complex words into the mix without really explaining it, and I feel like that makes science inaccessible.”

Providing a science communication class could help change that by giving future generations of scientists opportunities to learn to write and speak clearly.

The real-world applications of science communication exist even in the social media sphere.

“We’ve all got our social media outlets – or most of us do – and that’s part of how you get jobs, tfhat’s part of how you make connections with other researchers, that’s part of how you navigate your career and find success,” Colgan said.

While there are benefits for future scientists to communicate inside and outside their discipline, some would argue against an interdisciplinary approach because it may lack clear lines and definitions to a given discipline. However, in the era of social media and social justice movements, science communication can make science more accessible by tailoring its approaches to the experiences of individual communities.

“I think it’s almost, in a lot of ways, a social justice responsibility of the university to educate all of our students to be able to convey these important pieces of knowledge publicly,” Colgan added.

UCLA must develop a generation of STEM students who have all the resources they need to succeed not only in their classes and careers but also in making a difference in the world.

Implementing a science communication requirement would not only facilitate the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills of students, but also allow them to communicate effectively with the general public.


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