News | 01 August 2022

Nathan Robinson: “Science means nothing unless it is shared”


The ICM-CSIC postdoctoral researcher Nathan Robinson explains why it is necessary to be in social networks and which benefits it can bring.

Nathan combines turtle and deep sea research with scientific communication / ICM-CSIC.
Nathan combines turtle and deep sea research with scientific communication / ICM-CSIC.

Today we interview Nathan Robinson, a post-doctoral fellow recently arrived at the ICM-CSIC thanks to the Severo Ochoa grant who combines sea turtle and deep-sea research. He studied at the University of Southampton (UK), and during his thesis he deepened the understanding of how marine invertebrates have adapted to life in the deep-sea. As he explains, he loved the topic of deep-sea exploration, but at some point he felt that his research did not have enough of a connection with ocean conservation. That is why he turned down a Ph.D offer and began working for Archelon – The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. This led him to develop a Ph.D at Purdue University (USA), where he studied the migratory movements of sea turtles. Since then, he has worked as a post-doctoral fellow in this university, as well as the Director of the Cape Eleuthera Institute (The Bahamas).

1.     What made you get into social networks?

I largely avoided social media until, much to my surprise, I went viral in 2015. A friend filmed a video of me rescuing a sea turtle that had a plastic straw lodged inside its nostril. The video now has over 100 million views on YouTube alone and is often cited as a catalyst for the development of anti-single-use-plastic campaigns worldwide. Seeing the incredible impact of this video, I began to incorporate social media into all my research projects.

2.  Why do we need to be on social networks?

Science means nothing unless it is shared. While science has been traditionally shared via articles published in scientific journals, the harsh truth is that the overwhelming majority of people do not read scientific journals. In today’s world, most of us (scientists included!) gaining the overwhelming majority of our news from social media. Social media can therefore provide a platform to extend far beyond the readership of scientific journals and to connect with individuals from any background.

3.   Are social networks more effective in engaging society to achieve the change we need to keep the Earth habitable?

The power of social media to share information and coordinate individuals regardless of their physical distance is an incredible tool for enacting global change. We have already seen the power of social media to topple authoritarian governments (e.g., Arab Spring), reduce the power of the fossil fuel industry (e.g., fossil fuel divestment), and promote eco-friendly initiatives (e.g., plastic straw bans). While this can promote a “healthy” planet for the future, it needs to be remembered that social media has also created a culture of anonymous online bullying, falsified news stories, and its overuse can be associated with mental health issues. In short, social media is simply a tool – whether or not it is used to improve conditions on this planet depends on us and how we decide to use it.

4.  What has surprised you most about social networks so far?

What goes viral and when! I’ve had videos on my YouTube channel that received less than 100 views for several years and then one day you’ll receive a million views in an afternoon!

5.   How can affect your career spending your time in science communication?

I spend at least 50 % of my time in science communication. Unfortunately, this reduces the amount of time that I can spend on collecting scientific data or writing publications and grants. In many academic fields, this can be a disadvantage when applying for jobs that judge you based on typical scientific criteria (e.g., number of publications, number of citations); however, the world is changing. Many grant programs now require you to describe your science communication strategy and many academics are now looking to science communicators to help them fulfill such requirements. Furthermore, many organizations outside of academia, especially non-profits, are quickly realizing the value of science communication and this can lead to exciting new opportunities.

6.   Why do we need to transmit scientific knowledge to society?

If we want people to fight for healthier oceans, they need to have the facts. They need to know what is currently threatening our oceans, what effect these threats will have, and what we can do about it. If we don’t tell people about the issues that our oceans are currently facing, then why should we expect them to care about fixing them?

7.   Why is there so much skepticism about social networks among researchers?

I think there is a lot of stigma associated with social media use within researchers. Specifically, it is generally perceived as a way for vain people to reach out to anonymous online audiences for affirmation. However, by ignoring social media entirely, people run the risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. The reality is that regardless of what you think of the people who share TikTok dancing videos or publish every story of their life online, social media can still serve as a powerful tool for engaging people worldwide.

8.   Did you receive any training during your studies to learn how to communicate the results of your research?

During my MSc and PhD studies, I never received any training in presentation or communication skills. I see this as a wasted opportunity as in my personal opinion, I think education should focus more on skills-based learning (e.g., skills associated with presentation, communication, team-management, mental health) than rote memorization of facts. Just because you know a lot about science does not mean that you will be an impactful scientist – to do this you need to learn how to communicate.

9.   What would you tell your thesis director if he/she told you that you should not "waste your time" communicating your research results?

I would look for another supervisor!

10.  What advice would you give to a colleague starting out as a "science communicator"?

There are so many ways to become a science communicator and so think about your strengths and interests, and then focus on that. If you like writing, you could try writing articles for a popular science magazine or a newspaper. If you like discussing science, then maybe a podcast is for you. If you like public speaking, then maybe you could be the presenter in your own series of science videos. There is no one “correct” way to be a science communicator and so do what all scientists do and experiment!