Science and storytelling

Markus Weißkopf steht neben einem Bildschirm, auf dem Jess Wade zu sehen ist.
© Wissenschaft im Dialog
03. Dezember 2021

A summary of Jess Wade's Keynote at the #fwk21.

von Paul Sutter

Breaking the loop: How science communicators can stop reproducing representation biases

Science affects our entire society. Every person’s life, regardless of their background, is affected in myriad ways by both the big and the small discoveries and inventions made by scientists. Historically, however, some groups of people have benefited more from scientific progress than others. These beneficiaries tend to resemble scientists in a number of ways: they’re usually from the same socioeconomic background, have the same ethnicity and gender, speak the same language, and live in similar parts of the world. And for exactly these beneficiaries, the possibilities and prospects of the scientific endeavour are more likely to entice them to pursue scientific careers themselves than their peers. In turn, their ideas and discoveries benefit the next generation of budding scientists and the cycle of disproportionate benefit continues.

Representation matters

This feedback loop results in historically marginalised groups being continually underrepresented in academia and especially in STEM subjects and careers. Jessica Wade is out to change just that. As a physicist, Wade is not only a role-model to young women, but she is an avid activist for elevating the visibility of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC scientists and their achievements in the media. To explain why representation and visibility affect the make-up of the scientific workforce, Wade refers to the Science Capital model, which juxtaposes academic success with Bourdieu’s forms of capital.

The notion of Science Capital was introduced in 2015 by Louise Archer and her colleagues as a concept to frame an individual’s likelihood to pursue STEM subjects and careers. According to Archer, four main categories of Science Capital can be identified: what you know, who you know, how you think, and what you do. The more Science Capital that kids and teenagers are equipped with, the likelier they are to regard STEM subjects as suitable career paths. Accordingly, increasing the Science Capital of historically marginalised groups will result in a more diverse scientific workforce.

Where to start

Wade is convinced that scientists and science communicators can contribute their fair share to increase young people’s Science Capital. Especially in the domain of “Who you know”, they can make a difference towards a more diverse, more inclusive picture of science. The scientists presented in the media play a pivotal role in the perception of who it is that can do and does do science.

During her keynote at the Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation 2021, Wade suggested that thoughtful storytelling is our main way to impact representation: “You tell stories all the time, in everything that you write and create […] I think this gives us the opportunity to give proper recognition to people who do work”. One way to do this is by identifying diversity in the teams we talk to and by placing the team as a whole in the limelight. “I truly believe that you, as science communicators, have this opportunity, this potential, to elevate the voices of underrepresented groups”. A similar approach was adopted by Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize winning science writer for The Atlantic. In 2018, he closed the gender gap in his reporting and readily shared why he decided to do so, how he accomplished it, and what you can do to follow suit.

Wade, furthermore, pointed out that scientists from historically marginalised groups have founded progressive initiatives like 500 Women scientists Pride in STEM, 500 queer scientists, leading routes, Black in AI, Black in Physics or Black in Neuro, to name but a few, that bolster visibility and act as a voice for group-specific issues. Also, some viral science content creators on social media like Science Sam (on Instagram) or Raven the Science Maven (on Twitter and YouTube) serve as positive role models, especially for BIPOC girls.

Wikipedia, the whole world's encyclopaediay

Wade’s own activism for diversity and equality in science is not limited to her appeals to science communicators and journalists, she has taken things into her own hands, too. She is on a personal quest to increase the number of Wikipedia articles on women and other historically marginalized groups. To date, women are massively underrepresented on the online encyclopaedia. Only about 19% of biographies in the English language Wikipedia are on women (the German Wikipedia fares no better with 16.646% women). According to Wade, the reason why this is problematic is obvious: “What’s on Wikipedia matters. But what really matters is not necessarily on Wikipedia”. Wikipedia is the 5th most frequently visited website, accessed 15 billion times a month. It is used heavily in education, particularly in the developing world, where access to other resources might be limited. It serves as a quick introduction to scientific topics for journalists, and often enough informs their shortlist for interview candidates. “And Wikipedia affects us in more indirect ways, too: smart assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa rely on data from Wikipedia”, she said.

To address this imbalance Wade has composed biographies of female scientists on Wikipedia. If she keeps writing at her current pace, she will have penned 1,500 articles before 2022. One of Wade’s personal favourite biographies - highlighted during the keynote - is that of Gladys West, whose fundamental work on geodesy laid the groundwork for GPS. Wade created the page in February 2018 after reading about West in a newspaper article. Later that year, West was included in the BBC’s 100 Women listicle and was inducted into the US Air Force Hall of Fame.

Contributing to Wikipedia might look difficult for newcomers, but getting started is actually rather easy according to her. Wade suggests participating in an Editathon, translating an existing page into your native language, updating outdated pages, or extending short biographies of people you’re interested in. “It’s such a thrill to write on something you’re passionate about and the next morning everyone can see it. It’s very addictive”, she said in her closing remarks.

Keynote: Science and storytelling 

This article is part of the conference documentation of the Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation 2021. You can find the complete documentation here (mainly in German).

You can also find the recording of this keynote as well as of other sessions on YouTube