A Conversation About Communicating Science with Nicholas Spitzer

The co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UC San Diego discusses how engaging the public about neuroscience has benefitted and influenced his own work.

Nicholas Spitzer is the co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego (KIBM) and an eminent neuroscientist, focusing on the ways neurons take on specialized functions to enable signaling in the brain. He is also someone who has made a priority of educating the public about his field, whether conducting interviews for UC-TV or serving as the inaugural Editor-in-Chief of BrainFacts.org—the website established by the Society for Neuroscience dedicated to providing accurate, public-friendly information about the brain.

In this interview, Spitzer discusses why engaging the public about neuroscience has been personally gratifying, and how it has benefitted and influenced his own work. He also discusses why, in a world increasingly dependent on the knowledge and principles of science, it is more important than ever for scientists to step out of the lab and discuss their work.

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: It’s been said we live in age when it’s particularly important for the public to understand the role of science in their lives. Do you agree?

Nicholas Spitzer, co-director of KIBM at the University of California, San Diego
Nicholas Spitzer is co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind and Editor-in-Chief of Brainfacts.org

NICHOLAS SPITZER: I do indeed. To a greater and greater extent, our futures are strongly influenced by and sometimes regulated by discoveries in science. We all need to have an understanding of these discoveries unless we want to be led along blindly like sheep. In addition, the involvement of science in our daily lives is much greater now than it has been in the past, and is growing at an extraordinary rate – faster now than at any point in history. Scientists have a responsibility to communicate to the public what they learn, to close the gap between what the public knows and what it should know about science.

That said, I think the broad public does have a great enthusiasm for neuroscience. The brain is cool. Unfortunately, there is also a great deal of misunderstanding about how it works. We address some of this on Brainfacts.org where our featured content includes debunking of “neuro-myths” such as “You only use 10% of your brain.” We actually use 100% of our brains. So there is some misinformation out there. I suspect that cosmology, nanoscience and many other branches of science have the same problem, but in neuroscience being misinformed can also directly and adversely affect one’s health.

TKF: You see scientists themselves as critical for bridging this communications gap.

SPITZER: Yes, and we should welcome this. We need to help make this a better world. But set aside the social value, as well as the impact it can have in inspiring future scientists; if the public understands science a little better and sees the benefits, it can influence governmental and other funding decisions. As we march toward the fiscal cliff, much heralded in the news, I’m hearing many people on the UCSD campus raise concerns about this. If the public understands science and the benefits that have accrued from science they will be more inclined to support its funding. This is a real consideration for scientists who need funding to keep a lab open or launch an astronomical satellite into space.

Beyond that, if you love a field, why keep it to yourself? For me, neuroscience is the greatest invention since sliced bread. It’s an extraordinary thing. I tell my family about it, my relatives, my friends, my neighbors. I’m a great enthusiast for this field and what we’ve learned, are on the verge of learning, and will learn. It’s all tremendously exciting.

TKF: Can you look at your career and see how this skill has benefited your work?

SPITZER: Yes and in fundamental ways. For instance, when I talk publicly, I appreciate the need to step back and present the big picture, and in so doing put details into a larger context that is much more accessible – and much more memorable – for an audience. This has stimulated me to think about larger questions over the years and has influenced the directions of my research. This happens simply by virtue of stepping back from the immediacy of the details of a particular experimental paradigm, or a focused, tightly drawn question, then restating it in a context that the public finds understandable and interesting.

I have also found it opens my mind to cross-disciplinary possibilities. When I step back and look at the bigger picture, I quickly see potential links developing to fields that initially looked peripheral but wind up appearing contiguous. That leads to discussion of mutual opportunities and things that we can do together, which can be hugely productive. This is particularly true since I am fortunate to be embedded in an environment where my neighbors work in different fields. This encourages new points of view, new ways at looking at problems, and new collaborations. Then different technologies come together to solve a problem, using methods that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.

TKF: You are Editor-in-Chief of BrainFacts.org, a website established by the Society for Neuroscience that gives the public a reliable, friendly and up-to-date source of information about the brain. What’s the need for BrainFacts?

SPITZER: Before we went forward with the formulation of BrainFacts.org, we studied what’s already available on the Internet. Much of the information on the web unfortunately fell into one of two categories: either it was clinically oriented and aimed at selling a product to the public, or it poorly or inaccurately provided information about the brain and the nervous system. Focus groups and market analysis indicated that there is a desire for a website absent of any advertising or commercial overtones that sticks as strictly as possible to the facts and nothing but the facts… yet in a way that is easily accessible. The partnership of SfN with The Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby Foundation enabled us to launch the website.

TKF: Are there any concepts in neuroscience that are particularly difficult to communicate?

SPITZER: It’s not specific to neuroscience, but one of the things that is hardest to convey is the uncertainty in science. For example, a study comes out with a new Alzheimer’s drug and it’s touted to be the greatest thing, then six months later another study comes out and says, “That was completely wrong.” How does the public deal with that? Scientists are comfortable in dealing with uncertainty and variation in data, but the public has to be brought along and led to appreciate how science is a process and works steadily toward the answers. It can be a slow process and personally frustrating for scientists, but it can be even more frustrating for the public. However it has a marvelous, almost inexorable quality to it, such that given time, energy and effort, it achieves answers that are robust. Trying to communicate that perspective to the public is a challenge.

In the realm of molecular and cellular neuroscience, I think the public needs help in understanding how structure and function are so tightly interrelated. When you understand a structure in sufficiently great detail, you have great insights into its function; if you know a lot about its function, you can begin to infer something about the structure that gives rise to the function. The public seems to find this a tough concept to be comfortable with.

TKF: How would you characterize the public’s understanding, or for that matter expectations, of neuroscience?

SPITZER: That’s a very interesting question. I think the public has a rudimentary understanding of neuroscience because everyone is an “owner” of a brain. However people are interested in moving beyond that elementary understanding so that they will be able to make better use of their brains for their longer lifetimes and maintain high levels of cognitive function. As we all live longer the public wants to know how neuroscience discoveries can help keep us in good mental health and “stay sharp.” Regarding expectations here at the Kavli Institute of Brain and Mind, we believe that a better understanding of the way the brain informs the mind – and the way the mind derives its abilities from the brain – could help with global social interactions around the world. This may sound like a lofty and distant goal, but at the end of the day the fighting between the Palestinians and the Israelis in Gaza is about brains of different persuasions clashing and having trouble with conflict resolution. So a better understanding of how the brain works down at the level of territorial politics is rather highly to be desired. It may not happen in the near future, but it’s an important objective.

TKF: Who have been important, influential communicators in your life?

SPITZER: As a sophomore at Harvard I met John Dowling, one of the nation’s preeminent neuroscientists, who holds hundreds of undergraduates spellbound in his lectures. Also at the same time, George Wald, a Nobel laureate for his groundbreaking discovery of the role of vitamin A in the visual pigment of the eye, who could captivate everyone when giving a lecture. These two extraordinary professors persuaded many people about the magic of neuroscience by virtue of their ability to capture an audience.

TKF: What are some of the principles that you learned from these instructors and from your own practice that you convey to your students?

SPITZER: The big principle is that the human brain is a magnificent story, so don’t be shy about communicating in a way that expresses your own awe and enthusiasm. It’s also important to do so in a way that’s calibrated to your audience. Today when I'm lecturing to a class of 200 students, I’m aware that a little bit of the actor in me needs to come out to keep people interested and turn them on to the subject matter. My hope is not only to educate but to inspire and excite them the way I was excited and inspired as a student.

I think we’re heading in the right direction now when it comes to science communication. Among scientists, there has been a growing appreciation of the importance of communication over the last 10 or 20 years. In the past, people were more siloed, and while that’s not all bad, I get the sense people want to communicate more and appreciate the value of doing so. I see this particularly in younger scientists. This is a wonderful development and one that I expect is here to stay.

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