Hieroglyphics
Photo by Mark Ramsay

Lost in Translation

Co-written by Chris Surridge (Chief Editor, Nature Plants) and Jaron Porciello (Associate Director Research Engagement, Cornell University).

The three days of the Science Forum 2018 did not want for knowledge. During the first two days we were treated to many extremely careful analyses of the trade-offs between increasing productivity and maintaining sustainability for future generations, in the context of crops, water, livestock, aquaculture. The details of these analyses are all available on the Forum website. Despite such an excellent display the group discussions had an underpinning of frustration; urgency and a desire for action were palpable. We know the problems, we have some solutions, we are capable of setting sensible priorities by reasoned argument yet why is implementation of what we propose so hard to achieve?

In the final hours of day three some general agreement of common roadblocks was arrived at, including communication, or more accurately the need for “knowledge brokers”. The suggestion of “knowledge brokers” was met with much enthusiasm. Everyone chimed in, unsurprisingly. There is great enthusiasm for communication and for interdisciplinary research and we all want to bridge the gap between science and policy.

But, as we reflect on this discussion in the days post Forum, it seems appropriate for us as the editor and the information scientist to highlight that we already have many systems and roles in place to help us disseminate the outputs of science. We are supported by a 200-year old peer-review publishing system. We have communications and press officers in our organizations. Some of our projects are even supported by social media mavens, magical digital whisperers who sprinkle invisible breadcrumbs and effortlessly scoop up online research enthusiasts. Many scientists participate in some kind of “translational” science writing. We all participate in scientific meetings like Science Forum where diverse communities come together.

So these enthusiastic calls for ‘knowledge brokers’ reminded us of The Man Who Shouted Teresa by Italo Calvino (or rather reminded Jaron, Chris isn’t so well-read!). A man stands on a sidewalk in front of a house shouting “Teresa!” Soon he is joined by passers-by, each of whom lend their voice to the cause, experimenting with various ways of shouting the name, determined to organize themselves to call out “Te-re-sa!” in unison. Someone finally asks the man if he has lost his key. But the man doesn’t live there—he lives on the other side of town. The crowd murmurs, confused. Another asks, “Are you sure Teresa is even home?” He’s not sure, nor does he know if a woman named Teresa resides in the house. He responds:

“As far as I’m concerned, we can call out another name, or try something else. It’s no big deal.”

Slowly the group disbands, muttering to themselves, except one person — someone stubborn—who continues to call.

Given that systems to communicate science to various different audiences already exist, the question becomes: are these systems failing us or are we failing the systems? Before raising a clamor for some nebulous “knowledge broker”, a somewhat slippery phrase with a far from unambiguous meaning, it is worth asking whether we know what we want them to do and what skills we need them to possess. Perhaps we already have those skills. Perhaps there are Teresas standing in the crowd.

 Before creating further and more complicated systems to connect our knowledge base to those who can use it to make world-changing decisions, we can make better use of the systems that we already have.

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