Woke Science: 3 Tips to Boost the Impact of Research

RAO_headshotKrishna Rao is an Earth scientist (at @StanfordEarth) pursuing his PhD in the Remote Sensing Ecohydrology Group at Stanford University, USA.

He develops technologies to measure forest health and understand its impacts on Earth processes across scales.

Connect with him at his website.


Woke Science
Artwork by ShonEjai on Pixabay.

We have a problem. Researchers make an astonishing 2 million contributions annually, but the majority of these end up just as academic papers and collect dust without ever being used to create change in our society.

This is not just our problem, but broader society’s, too, since all of us lose if science continues to churn out studies without having a real impact. In no other case is this more evident than in climate science. Although global warming was discovered in the 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists engaged with the general public, which gave rise to the energetic activist movements we see today. It took over 70 years to create change. Researchers need to do better. We need to be more woke. 

Woke Science—or science that goes beyond just publishing papers — can help create impact.

From medical research to data research, opportunities are plentiful. Found evidence for loss of habitat for some species in your area? Raise your voice! Identified future risks to your region? Communicate with the public in easy-to-understand words! Developed a model to measure effects of social-distancing on coronavirus spread? Create an interactive tool! 

Where traditional science ends, Woke Science begins. In this post, I talk about how to make science accessible, relatable, and actionable by borrowing successful principles from woke culture.

Woke Science: Be aware of barriers; empathize when sharing; and act immediately.
How to apply woke concepts to science? Image by author.

#1 —  Make your work accessible

The first and foremost rule of Woke Science is to be aware of barriers to access research. Unless the general public is aware of the latest developments in research, we cannot expect them to act. Unfortunately, much of this work is locked behind paywalls and wrapped in difficult-to-understand words or impossible-to-understand charts. To make research more accessible, there are 2 immediate steps we can take: 

  • Prepare a free, plain language blog / vlog.
    Supplement your academic journal paper with a plain language blog or vlog so that any lay person can understand your results. Avoid jargon but use analogies. For motivation, try out the
    Ten Hundred Word Challenge, which forces you to explain your research using only the thousand most frequently used English words. Finally, replace complex charts with simple sketches and delete abbreviations from axes labels. My favorite example of a plain language blog isHow Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole.
  • Make your papers freely available.
    For those who
    can understand your work in its raw form, make it easy for them to attain a copy of your paper. Use SherpaRomeo to check if your journal allows pre-print. If yes, upload a copy on arXiv. If not, use Research Gate so that fellow researchers can easily contact you to obtain your author’s copy of the manuscript. I have found that many students and professors, especially from low-income countries, contact me on Research Gate to obtain my papers. Without that service, we are simply neglecting the needs of a major portion of our community.

#2— Make your work relatable

A second strong tenet of woke culture is to be able to relate to others. Making research accessible isn’t enough if it isn’t made relatable. For example, a 2 degree Celsius rise in Earth’s temperature doesn’t sound like much until you realise that it would displace 150 million people due to sea level rise, push 1 in 6 species to extinction, expose at least 1/3rd of humanity to extreme heat waves every 5 years, and result in irreversible damage to the Earth’s surface. If we make research relatable, people start caring immediately. Here is how we can do it: 

  • Follow the “so what” attitude.
    For each of your results, ask yourself, “So what?”. This makes you focus on the impact of your findings rather than the findings themselves. Have an AI model that classifies diseases based on chest x-rays? So what? Explain how many hours can be saved in the diagnosis of patients, how many more patients can access medical care and ultimately how many lives can be saved. Don’t simply report the F1 score of your classifier because the general public cannot relate to such statistics.
  • Create resources from your results.
    Technology can really help to make your findings more relatable. Although it takes a bit of work, demonstrating your results in an interactive way to the public has a huge return as it lets people discover your findings by themselves instead of having to be told about them by you. For inspiration, check out interactive dashboards displaying the
    effects of social distancing on coronavirus spread, or some apps that I developed to show how forest dryness is changing in the western USA, or the effects of storm water fees for New York City residents.

#3 —  Engage with the public

Finally, woke culture teaches us that it is not enough just to be aware of, or relate to, something but we also need to act upon it. If we contribute to a study that has a direct societal impact, we are obliged to speak out. Thankfully, it has never been easier to engage with the public and, better yet, with stakeholders and policymakers. 

Twitter is a great way to get started. Not only can you reach a wide audience, you can also engage with your audience through replies. Here are some easy-to-follow tips for using Twitter as a scientist.

If your findings seem even moderately important (they almost surely are), work with news organisations to have them cover your article. In my experience, if you proactively publicise your work using plain language blogs or vlogs, news channels and radio shows will reach out to you by themselves to feature your work. If you have an in-house public relations office at your workplace, work with them to put out a short story referencing your article. For example, for my last paper related to monitoring forest dryness for wildfires, I worked with my in-house outreach team to write a short lay-person summary regarding why it matters, which then led to featured stories in news sites like TechCrunch, Weather.com, etc.

When you actively engage with the public it is easy to overthink and avoid doing it for fear of appearing as self-aggrandising. But, frankly, the responsibility is ours to communicate our results widely and clearly to help others take action. One of my absolute research heroes, Katherine Hayhoe (a world famous climate scientist) summed it up well when she said that proactive and clear communication remains the most important way for researchers to create a meaningful impact. 

Final thought

Going above and beyond publishing academic papers can boost the impact of research. We can borrow principles from woke culture to make our work understandable using plain language blogs or vlogs, relatable by focusing on the impacts of our work or by creating interactive tools, and finally actionable using Twitter and news media. 

Remember that the ultimate lesson woke culture has taught us is to stay woke. So, no matter how difficult it seems to create a real world impact, we cannot give up! We need to shift away from producing research that is incomprehensible, unrelatable, and uncommunicative, and embrace Woke Science.

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