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When science outreach means tweeting carcass photos

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Why researchers' Twitter accounts are so important

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Anne Hilborn / Twitter

For Anne Hilborn, the drive to tweet about cheetah poop and hyena sex began in 2014. That’s when she went on a research trip to Tanzania for her PhD at Virginia Tech, where looked at the impact of lions and hyenas on cheetah hunting and foraging behavior. She didn’t have any running water, but she had a smartphone and an internet connection.

“It was a way to sort of share my experience with more people,” says Hilborn, who tweets from @AnneWHilborn. “I started realizing that people are actually really interested in fieldwork and like to hear stories about following animals and getting stuck in the mud.”

Part of the impetus to reach the public was a source of funding for the trip. Using the crowdsourcing platform Razoo, Hilborn was able to raise $4,000 to pay for emergency travel insurance and research permits. And so, as a kind of return gift, Hilborn began blogging and tweeting about her fieldwork experience.

That’s how Hilborn’s science communication love story got started — alongside the hashtag #FieldWorkFail, which she used to tweet, among other things, pictures of herself dropping cheetah poop on her body. Hilborn is not alone. She’s just one of many scientists who use their activity on Twitter and other social media to show the world who they are, what they’re studying, and why it matters. The concept is nothing new: scientists have been trying to communicate with the public about their work since the beginning of times — through books, science fairs, and the popular press. But social media is ensuring a wider reach than ever, at a time when many feel it is more necessary than ever.

The US has elected a president who’s embraced and legitimized anti-science conspiracy theories, such as the debunked link between vaccines and autism. Donald Trump has said climate change is a hoax, and appointed a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He appointed Betsy DeVos, who has funded groups that champion creationism, as secretary of education. And his administration has already singled out and censored scientists at various government agencies.

Many in the scientific community are striking back. Some are taking to the streets during the Science March in April. Others are running for office. And others still, who use social media and funky hashtags like #BestCarcass and #DoesItFart to engage the public, have taken on their outreach effort with a renewed role. “I think that in the last few months there’s been a greater sense of urgency associated with our science communication efforts, because we do see some of the foundations being threatened,” says David Steen, an assistant research professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at Auburn University, who often tweets photos of snakes — sometimes pressed inside a jar. “Now, I think it’s to defend science as an institution.”

For some, like Nicole Wood, a wildlife ecology grad student at Central Michigan University, that’s meant a greater motivation to ramp up outreach efforts. Wood studies mute swans, but loves to post quirky science facts about all types of animals and plants. That’s why on her Instagram, you can find the photo of a house cat sitting next to a dismembered wild turkey, or the photo of a white-tailed deer skull in the shrubs — with brief scientific explanations of how domestic cats impact wildlife and coyote packs kill prey. Wood is also on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Periscope, because she’s trying to reach as diverse an audience as she can. “Not everyone’s on the same platform, looking for the same message,” Wood says. “You need to diversify to hit that diversity of the public.”

Her final goal is to show the public that scientists are not just “sitting in white coats in a lab, we’re actually engaging and fun people,” checking on camera traps in the middle of winter and fixing a quick dinner of PB&J and Doritos, with a side of chocolate chips and champagne, after a long day at work. Showing that scientists are just like you and me was also the drive behind the #ActualLivingScientist hashtag that went viral earlier this month. It was used by scientists to introduce themselves to the world by posting photos and quickly describing their research.

Engaging people is a way to boost trust in scientists and their work, according to Wood. That why she often live streams on Periscope, broadcasting field trips and interviewing other scientists live. On one of her live-streams — from the Maumee River outside of Toledo, Ohio, where PhD students were collecting mussels for research — viewers began asking questions live, creating a level of engagement that’s not possible on other media. “That’s really a great way that you can get people to see the science as it’s happening,” Wood says.

Many scientists also share their research online because taxpayers are paying for it. In fact, the US spent more than $140 billion dollars in research and development in 2016. Taxpayers “deserve to know what the results are and what we’re doing,” Hilborn says. Asia Murphy, a wildlife researcher, created the hashtag #WhosEatingBambi to tell the public about her current research on how carnivores affect baby deer. (You can also find pictures of fuzzy bobcat kitten butts and bears trying to eat camera traps.) The research is publicly funded by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “If they’re paying for it, they should be able to learn about it from me,” says Murphy, who also writes about her research on Medium.

Trump’s election has given Murphy “more motive to reach out to the public,” she says, and show what scientists do. The same rings true for Hilborn, who has found herself tweet more about politics and not just about cheetahs, lions, and hyenas in the past few months. “The amount of politics that I tweet about basically went from 0 to, on some days, about 100 percent now,” she says. “I feel like I have to because it’s imperative to try to talk to people about what the impact of this presidency are having, not only on science but also on social issues, and on people.”

Not everyone agrees. Some scientists are refraining from joining the Science March, for example, claiming that it will only further politicize science. For others, it’s impossible to argue that scientists have to be apolitical, when scientists are people just like everyone else and their job is affected by who runs Congress and the White House. “It seems kind of silly to me to suggest that we should just divorce ourselves from the political process when science as an institution is so closely intertwined with politics,” Steen says.

For others still, the election hasn’t really changed the essence of what a science communicator does. “I’m going to continue doing what I’ve always done,” says Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota who studies penguins, seals, polar bears, and cougars (mountain lions). LaRue created a Twitter game with the hashtag #CougarOrNot, where she posts pictures of big cats and says whether or not they’re cougars. She also blogs and speaks at public events like the Earth Optimism Summit to make sure the public values scientific research.

That’s key for every scientist, says Terry McGlynn, an associate professor of biology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “If we’re trying to create new knowledge, what’s the point of that if people actually aren’t aware of that?” he says. “I think that’s why we’re performing this work — for the betterment of society, for other people.”