I am frustrated. Frustrated at my inability to communicate what it is I do. When meeting people at a party, I struggle after initial pleasantries have turned to the topic of occupations. ‘Doctor’, ‘teacher’, or ‘lawyer’ immediately tell everything about a profession in a single word. The day-to-day routine, the difficulties faced, and the difference they make are all instantly recognizable. I, on the other hand, watch eyes slowly glaze over while I try to explain materials science. In avoiding scientific terms, I am left grasping at half-sensible analogies while making increasingly fraught gestures with my hands.

I am also puzzled. Why is science communication so difficult? Surely, a large part of science is explaining how new findings reinforce or alter our current picture of how things are, how they work, or how they can be made to work? I also believe there is an increasing public appetite for science. Biomedical discoveries or images from the extremities of the solar system are now front-page news, and often the only ‘good’ news. Physics – that notoriously ‘difficult’ science – currently has a high profile with the World Year of Physics. In fact, it is hard to escape Einstein just now, with even comedy shows and dance performances celebrating his famous three papers of 1905.

While the Year of Physics is a great opportunity to increase interest and popularity, the iconic status of Einstein also points to some of the difficulties in science communication. Everyone knows the slightly disheveled, shuffling, white-haired old man standing in front of a chalk board. This is what a scientist should look like. Everyone also knows that Einstein's theories are incomprehensible. This is what a scientist should produce – something esoteric, impenetrable. “Einstein restored faith in the unintelligibility of science,” writes John D. Barrow of the University of Cambridge in an essay, Einstein as icon [Nature (2005) 433, 218]. “You didn't need to try to understand and no one would think you stupid for not knowing.”

Not only must researchers confront the barrier of people not bothering to understand, but these fast-paced, media-saturated times mean that only simple messages resonate. Often, reporting concentrates not on the results themselves but what they may lead to in future, as that is what the layperson can appreciate in the available time. So, it is very easy to oversell the science, going too far in ‘sexing up’ a story: fuel cells will solve our clean energy needs; stem cells will cure Parkinson's.

These perceived magic outcomes of incomprehensible science by white-coated boffins closeted in hidden labs are dangerous – especially so when the public and political awareness of science is increasingly important. There are difficult debates to be had where science must face wider ethical issues or various personally held values. This includes the potential risks of exposure to free, engineered nanoparticles, balancing security with civil rights in developing ever more pervasive sensing technologies, and the disposal of nuclear waste. Here, societal involvement is absolutely necessary. If science experts are still to be heard and trusted, then open, honest communication is critical. That includes elaborating on the research process, the available evidence, and the inherent uncertainties.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)70960-3