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Ask Me Anything about Science Outreach

Newly published research looks at how scientists can use a flexible and fun Reddit activity for public engagement.

July 18, 2019

Macroscope Communications

“Hi, Reddit! I’m a marine biologist who studies sharks. Ask me anything!” Five years ago during Shark Week—an annual period of shark-related programming on the Discovery Channel—I typed those words into the popular online social network Reddit. Over the next three hours, I received more than 600 questions from members of the Reddit community, and I answered as many as I could. The questions ranged from serious science geek questions about sharks and marine biology to questions about how people can help the ocean, with questions about Sharknado thrown in there too along with goofy out-of-the-blue questions (ask me anything means ANYTHING, and for the record I’d rather fight 100 duck-sized horses than one horse-sized duck).

National Human Genome Research Institute

My Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) directly led to several speaking and travel opportunities and more than a dozen media interviews. I later learned that someone who has since become a colleague was inspired to pursue a career in marine biology based on my answer to her question during this AMA. It’s some of the most rewarding science outreach I’ve ever done, and remains the only time I’ve ever needed a nap after answering questions from the public about science!

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The AMA format is widely used on Reddit by celebrities and world leaders as well as scientists. New research published in PLoS ONE looks specifically at how scientists have used AMAs for their own public outreach by surveying 70 scientists who have done AMAs in the r/science subreddit (a subreddit is a smaller, focused community within Reddit). R/science has hosted AMAs from influential people in science and science policy including NIH Director Francis Collins, and former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, as well as graduate students, science journalists, and inventors—r/science has hosted over 1,000 AMAs in the science AMA series!

“Our goal is to encourage discussion and facilitate outreach while helping to bridge the gap between practicing scientists and the general public,” says Jennifer Below, an r/science moderator who is also an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Genetics Institute. “The majority of online resources for self-directed scientific inquiry are non-interactive presentations of information. Scientists must go to where the learners are or we cede the audience to click-bait pop science, pseudoscience, and science deniers by default.”

The PLoS ONE article found that by taking advantage of huge, built-in audiences like those found on Reddit, scientists can more easily accomplish some of their outreach goals. “Scientists recognize the promising interactive nature of Reddit,” says Noriko Hara, a Professor of Information Science at Indiana University and the paper’s lead author. Hara noted that the relatively few negative interactions reported by survey respondents included complaints that these experts just didn’t have time to answer all the great questions they received from the r/science audience. Although Reddit has more than its fair share of internet trolls, the r/science moderator community can filter out most problematic comments in a way not found in some other subreddits.

Reddit’s platform can put scientists who want to share their expertise with the interested public in front of lots of science lovers. “AMAs present an opportunity to connect with a population of science enthusiasts who may never have a chance to enroll in a university course to learn about the ideas, knowledge, and experiences that these experts have to share,” says Jessica Abbazio, a music librarian at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and a coauthor on the PLoS ONE paper. “This format is incredibly useful in connecting hosts—whether they're scientists, celebrities, or regular people with interesting life experiences—directly with the Reddit users who want to learn from them. Much like Twitter, these sessions combine a direct line to the experts with a public forum in a way that didn't exist before the advent of social media, so they're great opportunities to engage in unmediated communication with the public.”

Screenshot courtesy of Stacey Lutkoski.

I’m not the only scientist who greatly enjoyed their Reddit AMA. “I thought it was a really fun experience to be able to communicate directly with the public,” says Larisa Avens, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist who participated in an AMA focusing on sea turtle science and conservation. “As a federal scientist and civil servant focused on working in the public interest to manage threatened and endangered sea turtle populations, it was rewarding to have a line of direct communication to address any questions or concerns the public might have!”

The informal, sometimes downright silly nature of a Reddit conversation may be a turnoff to scientists who prefer a “sage on the stage” style formal lecture, but it can also be fun! “Reddit’s casual vibe seems to create a fertile environment for lively engagement between hosts and expert participants,” Abbazio said. “To me, it seemed like a portion of the discourse was similar to what you might find at a professional conference, but the interactions were more like the type that happen between sessions rather than in the formal Q&A after a presentation. When a scientist involved with NASA's Laser Comm Relay Demonstration posted a link to a meme of a shark with a laser beam on its head, or when biophysical chemistry researchers gave their honest opinions on the nightlife around the University of Bath, it was a fun reminder that these were real people who were enjoying the opportunity to communicate with the public.”

R/science has since stopped doing AMAs (some longtime users note that recent changes to the Reddit algorithm make it harder for users to find AMAs), but there are still opportunities for scientific experts to do them in other subreddits, including r/AMA. The authors of the PLoS ONE paper hope that scientists will continue to use AMAs if they want to engage in some fun, informal public science engagement!

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