Case Studies on Presenting Toxicology Effectively to the Public


By David Faulkner posted 03-20-2017 10:28


The 2017 SOT Annual Meeting Scientific Session “Communicating Toxicology to the Public,” chaired by Phil Wexler, MLS, National Library of Medicine, included speakers engaged with a variety of efforts to improve science communication efforts and to increase public understanding of toxicology.

The first speaker, Jeffrey J. Jenkins, PhD, Oregon State University, described the results of a project by the nonprofit The Toxicology Education Foundation (TEF), which aimed to explore the medium of YouTube as an avenue for toxicology education. The videos were aimed at the “millennial” demographic and were intended to communicate fundamental toxicology principles to the general public in the span of three to five minutes. TEF found that, despite spending more time and money on the videos than initially expected, engagement was significantly less than anticipated. As a result, TEF is now reconsidering how long the videos should be, and what production levels give the best return on investment.

In a similar effort in public engagement, the Toxipedia database and associated suite of websites was developed by Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders, and faced challenges with engagement as well. This time, however, the lack of engagement came from the toxicology community, as well as the general public. The format of the website mirrors Wikipedia in many respects and aims to be the “Wikipedia of toxicology,” but there has not been sufficient curation from the toxicology community to flesh out and expand entries. Although the Toxipedia sites generate more than 100,000 unique visitors per month, there has not been adequate intellectual and funding support to maintain them in their current states. Consequently, the project is merging with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment to keep going.

Some of the more successful outreach campaigns presented by the speakers included the similar programs by Brian Tencza, MS, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and Mr. Wexler: developing graphic novels for conveying toxicological information for ASTDR and public science events, respectively. Mr. Tencza and Mr. Wexler also provided general advice for communicating scientific principles, most of which boiled down to the following recommendations:

  • Go to your audience. Don’t expect them to come to you.
  • Use non-technical language and avoid jargon.
  • Partner with a trusted source of information, someone who your audience already respects.
  • Marketing, marketing, marketing.
  • Consider “hot” topics and local or regional topics that will fire up your audience.
  • If you fail at first, don’t give up!

Nancy B. Beck, PhD, American Chemistry Council (ACC), described how her organization uses these concepts—many of which are known among advertisers—to advance the interests of its members. Dr. Beck described several educational websites that the ACC has created through partnerships with various NGOs and even the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). One website that ACC created,, draws about 147,300 annual visitors and the monthly visitor rate has been rising thanks to recent additions to the website that include Spanish and Chinese translations of web content. This last point highlights the importance of accommodating the needs of the community that a communicator wishes to reach—the message must be presented in a way that is meaningful to the audience.

A big takeaway from the session, at least for this reporter, was that while toxicologists may be trained to do excellent scientific work, they are rarely effectively trained in the subtle, but vital art of marketing. And in the digital age, where the attention economy rules and formerly respected institutions are distrusted, effective toxicology communication is going to require marketing savvy and sophistication rarely learned at the bench.

We have a long way to go as a society to find effective modes for communicating toxicology to general audiences, but the early efforts presented in this session—and the session itself—seem to indicate that our community is coming together around the challenges and opportunities presented by effective science outreach.