Tuesday, 8 April 2014

"Can you read my mind?"

By Elizabeth Kirkham, PhD student at the University of Sheffield

Note: Elizabeth was the winner of this year's Access to Understanding competition. Check back tomorrow to read her winning entry! It has also been published by eLife. Congratulations Elizabeth!

My background is in psychology, which means that over the years I’ve learned to steel myself against the inevitable question: “Can you read my mind?” Unfortunately, my ability to produce a witty reply is only slightly better than my ability to read minds, so an awkward pause is pretty much the best my questioner can hope for. Undoubtedly many of those asking this question are joking (though I can’t be sure, I can’t read their minds). Nevertheless, when the first thing that people associate with psychology is something psychologists can’t actually do, it’s clear that something needs to change.

This change won’t materialise unless the wider public see what it is we really do all day. Open access publications, which allow people to read papers without a subscription fee or one off payment, are a great start to making science more accessible to everybody. However, the presence of jargon can make these publications difficult to follow – even scientists within the same broad field can struggle to understand the terms used in their colleagues’ publications. 

Scientific knowledge is advancing rapidly, fueled by the advent of new technologies. Research as a discipline is also progressing, having undergone fundamental changes over the past two decades.  Thanks to these developments, the previously arduous process of searching for information has been condensed into seconds; instead of skimming through pages and pages of books and journals, we can find hundreds of relevant articles merely by pressing a few keys. Scientific research is expanding. Findings are no longer hidden within the walls of universities and libraries, but accessible to millions of people around the world.

However, finding information and comprehending its meaning are often two very different things. This theme was at the heart of the Access to Understanding ceremony 2014. The speeches given by Sir Mark Walport (Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government) and Sharmila Nebhrajani (CEO of AMRC and chair of judging panel), among others, highlighted the need for more people who can translate research articles into accessible language. Additionally, we as scientists can make our research available to a wider audience, by working on plain English summaries and clear explanations of our findings. My own field, Cognitive Neuroscience, is only a few decades old, but has already facilitated huge leaps forward in our understanding of the human brain. That said, expanding knowledge within the academic community is one thing, translating it into real change is quite another.

Elizabeth Kirkham receives her first place award
from Sir Mark Walport, 24 March 2014
I hope that initiatives like Access to Understanding will continue in their endeavours to make science accessible to a broader audience. The power of scientific discovery should not be stifled by an inability to communicate its relevance beyond the laboratory. Perhaps wider communication could also save future generations of psychologists from having to answer that dreaded question. After all, even if we could read minds, we’d never get the ethical approval to do so.

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