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Senior life scientists believe science communication skills are more important than ethical skills

Posted Dec 17 2009 12:00am
I’ve always wondered why bioethics and research ethics are routinely referred to as obligatory passage points in most biomedical and life science PhD programmes — and why science communication is so far more rarely highlighted in postgraduate training.

Does this emphasis on ethics and the corresponding  lack of attention to science communication reflect a deeply felt need from the side of biomedical and life scientists? No, not necessarily, at least not if we should believe the results of a survey made by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) about the importance of a variety of useful ‘transferrable skills’.

Of the transferable skills listed in the survey, management and grant application skills are considered the most desirable by senior scientists. But they also value the importance of improving their skills in public communication. Whereas skills in research ethics/bioethics are considered much less important. 

When ~400 senior Europan life scientists were asked which complementary skills they would have liked to receive training in earlier in their career, 37% and 33% mentioned public communication and peer-to-peer communication, whereas only 17% and 11% mentioned research ethics and bioethics:

When asked which complementary skills they would like to improve, public communication and peer-to-peer communication was chosen by 28% and 13% respectively, while research ethics and bioethics was chosen by 3% and 5% only:

Another interesting angle to this is that senior scientists value the importance of research ethics and peer-to-peer communication skills for research students (in contrast to themselves) very highly (4,4 and 4,2 points on a scale from 5-1), whereas bioethics and public communication skills are valued less important for the students (3,6 and 2,8 on the scale). In other words, senior faculty values more general mind-expanding skills for themselves and wants their students to stick to narrow technical training.

All in all, it seems like science communication skills in the biomedical and life sciences — either public engagement skills for senior faculty and peer-to-peer communication skills for PhD students — ought to be upgraded.

(thanks to David Karlin, Wellcome Trust, for making me aware of the EMBO report on transferrable skills)

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