Jinelle Wint researches better therapies for Parkinson’s disease with the help of zebra fish.
Alison Young studies the rocky intertidal coastal zone with the help of “citizen science” volunteers.
David Steen studies how animals use landscapes so he can better understand how humans can share those areas with other species.
One thing unites all these researchers. They’re still alive.
Last week they, along with thousands of other scientists, took a moment away from their research to remind the Twittersphere that the United States is full of living, working, tweeting scientists.
The hashtag #ActualLivingScientist swept through labs across the country in an effort to raise awareness of the value of scientific research, even as a science-skeptic administration takes over the White House as well as the agencies many scientists rely on for funding and data.
Steen, who has more than 16,000 followers and was once called the “best biologist on Twitter,” was spurred to create the hashtag on Feb. 5 after another Twitter user said they wouldn’t prioritize funding for his field.
He attributed the action to the fact that 83 percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist. He tweeted the stat and one of his followers suggested the hashtag.
“It took off after that,” he told Healthline.
The hashtag was still being used in dozens of tweets a day two weeks after it started — and reaching beyond scientists’ existing Twitter followers.
Wint, for instance, who has been on Twitter less than a year and has less than 500 followers, got 870 retweets and 3,176 likes for her post.
“I could not have imagined how popular the hashtag would become, being used by thousands of people and viewed by millions,” Steen, Ph.D., a wildlife ecologist, and assistant research professor at Auburn University, said.
Why it matters right now
Science has been under fire for years by Republicans in Congress.
Now, with the election of a president who has said that climate change is a hoax, that fire is now also coming from the White House.
Those supporting the new campaign to honor researchers say if there were more “actual, living” scientists in the public eye, sharing their research in accessible ways and demonstrating the value of what they do, it would be a lot easier for skeptical nonscientists to trust the data on something like climate change.
“Many people probably don't know a scientist in their everyday lives — as a neighbor, or as someone in their community — though I'm sure they're there. And many people probably also feel disconnected from science in their everyday lives — even though science touches almost all aspects of life today,” said Young, who helps lead citizen science programs at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
“It disheartens me to see people distrusting science and ‘science conspiracy’ being normalized. It pushes people further away from the fact that science is part of their lives,” she told Healthline.
Steen noted that many scientists have been active in outreach for years, but “lately it does seem that there have been more calls for scientists to get involved in science communication and outreach.”
In December, scientists at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco gathered at a lunchtime rally with signs and megaphones saying they would “stand up for science.”
A nationwide “march for science” is planned for Earth Day in April.
Scientists, normally reluctant to be seen as activist or political, are beginning to see no other choice.
The hashtag and efforts like it are ways to actively reach out to the public, rather than simply making yourself available, says Steen.
“As #ActualLivingScientist highlighted, it is asking too much of the general public to expect them to find you. Sometimes you've got to conduct true outreach and find them,” he said.
Where it goes from here
Another thing the hashtag highlighted is how many scientists are not only on Twitter, but active on it.
Wint, for instance, set up her account last April after taking a couple classes on science communication at Stony Brook University, where she’s a Ph.D. student.
She said the classes underscored how Twitter can be used as a way to collaborate and communicate with both scientists and the general public outside the bubbles of her field and school.
Just as a fake news link can reach millions of people on Twitter, so can a real scientific fact.
Young says she saw the power of that direct outreach earlier this week when singer-songwriter Neko Case retweeted to her 126,000 followers a photo of an anemone Young had posted.
“I was blown away,” says Young.
In the case of #ActualLivingScientist, the hashtag coincided with the popularity of another hashtag, #DressLikeAWoman, stemming from a report that President Trump prefers his female employees to “dress like a woman.”
That gave the campaign an extra twist as female scientists tweeted photos of themselves in lab coats and muddy jeans with the dual hashtags in an effort to share that not only are scientists all around, they may look different than you’re picturing.
“The stereotypical scientist is a white guy in a lab coat, and it's been great to see everyone shatter that stereotype,” Steen says.
Was anyone outside the scientists’ bubbles listening?
A nonscientific Twitter poll asking who is following the hashtag #ActualLivingScientist found that a third of the followers identified themselves as nonscientists.