20. May 2024

In April this year, the American cell biologist and Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman visited Brno to give a presentation on intercellular transfer of proteins and RNA at the renowned Mendel Lectures. Before sharing his research with the audience in Mendel Refectory, he gave us an interview on the topic of science communication.

Mr. Schekman, in your speech at the Nobel Blanket in 2013, you mentioned that no one could have predicted the practical application of botulotoxin in the beauty industry. But if someone did, it could have been a great story that would have attracted peoples’ curiosity to the research. So, how bad is it when science communicators “speculate” about results in basic research?

Randy Schekman (RS): You can always speculate but it would be better to go back to discoveries that we have now and anticipate the benefits. There are untold stories like that one. Besides, the practical application is not what motivates scientists. Scientists are motivated by curiosity of the natural world and it is this curiosity that brings these stories to the world. If microbiologists hadn‘t been studying how bacteria fight viruses, no one outside of the academic community would know about the technology that has led to cures to genetic diseases. But as a result, we've developed the new technology of genome editing which will lead to a revolution in medicine and agriculture.

When I won the Nobel Prize, I was often asked what’s the practical application. But my work was entirely basic science. I only cared about how yeast cells work, and I believed that what I learned in yeast would apply elsewhere but I didn’t really care. But as a result of what I found, yeast turns out to be so similar to human cells in the way it manufactures and exports proteins that the biotech industry which was growing up in San Francisco Bay area was able to use yeast as a production platform.  Many years later, we now know that one-third of the world’s supply of human recombinant insulin and hepatitis B vaccine is made in yeast. Although I consulted for the company that did this, I never did any of the experiments to do the application in my lab because that would not have uncovered the basic cellular processes that fascinated me.

As a kid, you liked to go to science fair and explain what you discovered to other people. So, is it the personality that determines whether a scientist will be a good communicator?

RS: No, it's not given. Most scientists are quite awkward [laughs] and not good at public communication. But those who are good really should be asked to help in that respect. There are some fantastic people who’ve given up on their own science to be public communicators – they should be respected and valued.

What helps you personally to find a way to the general public when you are supposed to explain what you do?

RS: For me, it’s been teaching undergraduates at a public university. I think it’s really important to teach undergraduates. People who are smart but don’t have the knowledge base yet. And then, it’s a challenge to explain to them in a way that maintains their interest and understanding. And so, I think, all academics should be teaching and not just teaching professionally. They should stretch their skills explaining their thrill for research to uninitiated undergraduate students. I feel that all the time that I've put into this has really helped me to be able to explain myself better. It was a struggle at first because I wasn't good at explaining but later on, I gained experience and now I enjoy it. But it’s not only about practice, it’s also about the right audience – intelligent people who just don’t know the basics and you get them excited about the process of discovery. We should all be teaching. Not only because it serves a purpose, but it helps the individual to learn how to explain things.

Communication both oral and written is very important. When I was in university, all I cared about was working in the lab. I didn't take classes where I would have enhanced by verbal or written communication skills. And at first, it was really tough. I was very awkward because I hadn’t developed my communication skills.

Scientists are usually so absorbed in their work in the labs that they don’t think about the importance of communicating to the general public…

RS: That, unfortunately, will have negative consequences. If they don’t communicate what they’re doing to the general public, then the politicians who determine budgets won’t be willing to give them funding.

In the US, the scientific societies have done a great job. We have something called the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus in Congress, which was organised by groups of biological science societies. And they have a regular seminar series that the Congress people, but usually their staff, come to learn about what's going on. And they pick the best people in the country to go and give talks about work that obviously has a practical application and as a result, the National Institutes of Health has enjoyed steady growth all the time. Even during the Trump regime, every year Trump would put in for a big cut in the federal budget for biomedical science and every year that he was overruled even by Republicans in Congress because they see the benefit of an investment in basic science. And they wouldn’t be aware of it if scientists didn’t communicate with them.