Social media for social change in science

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Science  13 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6385, pp. 162-163
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7303

Although we agree with M. Wright (“Instagram won't solve inequality,” Working Life, 16 March, p. 1294) that there are many systemic structures perpetuating the marginalization of women in science, we view social media as a powerful tool in a larger strategy to dismantle such structures. In addition, scientists have been using social media productively to address several other concerns in academia, including engaging with the public about science, increasing science literacy, promoting trust, exploring career options, networking internationally, and influencing policy.

Strong public trust in science contributes to a democratic, civil society. Scientists have a responsibility to engage effectively with society, especially when trust is lacking (1, 2) and scientific knowledge is not equitably accessible (3). Within academic science, much of this outreach is done by women (4) and underrepresented groups (5). Thus, not surprisingly, outreach has been grossly undervalued and sometimes demeaned. Instead of urging academia to stop celebrating this essential service, we should ensure sufficient compensation and recognition for public engagement. Evidence of outreach is increasingly a component of publicly funded research grants, and public engagement activities should have weight in merit, tenure, and promotion assessments. Whether scientists do outreach themselves or work with communication and media experts, public engagement with science is a responsibility requiring important skills that should be valued accordingly.

Given the other barriers women and other marginalized scientists must overcome as minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (6), they should not be expected to bear the full responsibility for outreach—nor should they be penalized for choosing to do this work. Diversity among communicators should be encouraged because multiple styles and approaches of science communication can make science more accessible and relatable to more people, including those who may not otherwise seek STEM education. Selfies on Instagram are optional, but they receive 38% more engagement than pictures without a face (7), enabling open dialogue with broad audiences in an effectively personal manner. Further research can determine whether sharing selfies from a research setting helps confer more trust without sacrificing credibility, and these data will inform strategies for improving the public's lack of trust in scientists (1, 2).

Social media serve an important role in the movement toward increased equity, diversity, and inclusion within STEM because it provides a widely available, readily accessible platform for many to use easily. Social media allow high-throughput networking and exploration of careers, which benefits trainees who may otherwise lack access to professional development (8). Although not free from the bias and prejudice inherent in society, social media can connect diverse groups, enable rapid information exchange, and mobilize like-minded communities.

This connectivity can allow those same groups to challenge traditional structures, identify and call out systemic barriers, and question hierarchies of power. Instagram, for example, allows for visible representation of individuals who are often unseen, and can amplify voices that may go unheard in traditional settings. Furthermore, increased representation of those who break stereotypes and are underrepresented creates a more inviting perception of STEM careers, and these efforts can improve diversity and inclusion in academia (911). For a diverse academic community to thrive, inclusion and acceptance of every scientist, regardless of appearance (whether conventional or not) is necessary.

No single post or person on social media should be expected to change the world, but social media have been instrumental in mobilizing grassroots political movements, including those related to safety in education, research, and equity, such as the March for Our Lives, the March for Science, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Women's March. Thus, we challenge the false dichotomy that use of social media for public engagement with science and working to change policy and remove systemic barriers to inclusion are mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intrinsically linked, and we need to harness the potential power of social media to create social change. As scientists, we must look to data and evidence to inform our understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of the use of social media for public outreach and policy change, and uphold the same rigor and analysis in determining what has value and what should be celebrated.


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