Some Thoughts on Facilitating Science Communication by Scientists

26 October 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

What can institutions do to get researchers on the mic? (Image: Roger Winstead, NC State University)

Earlier this year, there was another science communication blame-a-thon, with some people calling on scientists to do more outreach and some scientists wondering why they were being picked on. While both sides made valid points, I'm not sure this advanced the cause of science communication.

I wrote a post at the time, asking scientists what they need to facilitate their involvement in outreach efforts. The comments on that post are worth reading, but one of the things that jumped out to me was the observation – from more than one scientist – that outreach isn’t for everyone. I agree! And I’m not alone.

I recently read an interesting paper, published online Oct. 10 in Science Communication*, which sums that particular issue up nicely: “Scientists…are trained to produce innovative research, not to be facile talking heads.” It goes on: “scientific institutions that are serious about improving public engagement may be best served by efforts to identify and support scientists who find (or might find) [public communication of science and technology] pleasurable.” Amen to that.

This is a pretty useful observation, beyond the fact that it supports something I already believed. The way the second sentence is phrased highlights the fact that there is an institutional role in promoting science outreach from the research community. Universities, research centers and national labs all have a role to play in helping their researchers engage in science communication. (Note: I said helping researchers, not forcing researchers.)

The paper, by Anthony Dudo at the University of Texas at Austin, draws on a survey of 363 U.S.-based biomedical scientists to identify which factors contribute to a scientist’s actively engaging in science communication efforts. The findings include at least two other factors where research institutions can play a significant role.

Train Scientists, Don’t Silence Them

Dudo notes that scientists with more communication training are involved in more science communication efforts. Also, the paper suggests “that scientists with greater autonomy to communicate with nonscientific audiences engage in a greater amount” of science communication activity.

In short, if an institution wants to foster science communication with non-expert audiences, it needs to do more than just identify scientists who are interested in outreach activities – it needs to train those scientists and trust them.

Talking to a group of schoolchildren is different from speaking in front of your peers at a conference. Training can be the difference between inspiring the next generation of scientists and convincing kids that science is boring and should be avoided. Similarly, I have yet to meet anyone who is a “natural” at conducting a television interview. In fact, I think training and experience are helpful in every aspect of science communication. (If you don’t get training, you can learn from experience – but that can be painful.)

But while training seems fairly straightforward, trust seems to be a trickier issue. I know there are a number of research institutions that expressly discourage – even bar – researchers from engaging in public science communication issues (Canada’s “muzzling” of publicly-funded scientists, for example, has gotten a lot of media coverage). And if they’re not going to let their scientists talk, there is no reason to train their scientists either.

So What?

Ultimately, there are three things institutions can do to foster science communication efforts from scientists: identify scientists that want to participate; train them to participate effectively; and give them the wherewithal to put that training into practice.

But there are things scientists can do too. First, let your institution know that you would support efforts like these. Even if you don’t want to engage in outreach yourself, you can express support for your peers who DO want to participate in science communication efforts. And if you are interested in participating firsthand, let them know that too.

Second, work with your institution’s public information officers (PIOs) – they’re the ones who can offer training on various forms of science communication efforts. Some PIOs stink. But some are really good. I’m a PIO, and I try to be pretty good at it. I wrote elsewhere about what scientists should expect from their PIOs – and what PIOs should expect from scientists.

Now, I have some questions for you – What can be done to encourage institutions to adopt the recommendations above (if they haven’t already)? And, scientists, what else do you need from your institution to facilitate involvement in science communication efforts?

* Toward a Model of Scientists’ Public Communication Activity: The Case of Biomedical Researchers, doi: 10.1177/1075547012460845


9 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Facilitating Science Communication by Scientists”

  1. Aur_ora Reply | Permalink

    I subscribe to all you say in this post, Matt.

    The trust issue definitely resounded with me, from an institutional point of view. The 'higher echelons' can sometimes be a bit weary of just 'anyone' speaking for the institution. This can be short-sighted in the sense that when you get down to it it's nigh-on impossible to actually prevent people from communicating if they really want to. BUT it also stems from something scientists sometimes don't think of: even if your goal is to communicate science, if there's any kind of interaction (and in most forms of communication there is!), you can end up getting asked about other things - like budget cuts, or other politically-sensitive issues you may not even be aware of. And when you reply, you'll probably be taken as speaking in your institution's name. My point: part of the support that a good PIO/communications department can offer, if you contact them, is in highlighting potential issues and telling you what your institution's official stance on them is (which doesn't negate your having and expressing your own opinion - just make sure you're clear that it's yours and not the institute's).

    And finally, in response to your question, Matt: one of the most powerful tools I've found in convincing the 'powers that be' of the value of taking any action is to provide examples of success. Virtually nothing beats being able to say "X did this and had these amazing results!" A corollary to this is, if you do get the green light, measure your outcomes - it'll help you and others in future decisions.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Good points, Aur_ora. A couple things here:
    1). I rarely think of a researcher as speaking on behalf of the institution. It's not so much what "University of X" thinks, or "National Lab Z", as what this scientist can bring to the table in terms of his or her own research -- which was done at University X or Lab Z.
    2). Getting blindsided by unanticipated questions is certainly a concern that many institutions (and scientists) have. That's where the training I wrote about in the post (and you mentioned in your comment) can come into play. Solid media training, for example, covers everything from how to respond to off-topic or inappropriate questions to remembering not to sway from side to side when doing a stand-up TV interview. :)

    Also -- you're absolutely right about the metrics! Will be posting something on that soon.

    • Aur_ora Reply | Permalink

      1) Hmm. I think personally I take it as the scientist speaking for him/herself - especially while they're talking about science. *However*, I have had comments from both within and outside the institution on the lines of 'this made us look bad/could jeopardise ongoing negotiations/opened up a whole can of worms'. And that feeds into the difficulty of institution leadership in trusting all its scientists to go out and communicate 'on their own'.

      2) Absolutely agree on training, but it's also just another benefit of letting your comms department know that you're going to be doing this or that in terms of engagement/outreach - even if you've been trained already. They can point out things that you might not be aware of (as well as potentially providing other support, from logistics to publicity and follow-up). Basically, I'm touting my own horn here, but I like to think it's because I fundamentally see myself and my department as service providers.

      3) I look forward to the upcoming 'evaluation/metrics' post! Will 'how to share your results with your peers' be featured? Many institutions (not just research institutes but museums and others too) are reticent to share results, even when they do evaluate their actions... and we lose opportunities to learn from others' mistakes and successes.

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I would love it if more people shared their success stories (and their failures). That's actually one of the things I hope to accomplish with this blog. If we, as a community (scientists/reporters/PIOs/bloggers/etc.), do a better job of sharing tips/tricks/lessons learned, we will go a long way toward advancing science communication as a whole.

  4. Ken Kubo Reply | Permalink

    Fantastic post - this is an incredibly relevant issue in California right now with the Prop 37 GMO food label initiative on the November ballot.

    I agree with the points made in this post on talking science, but what about sharing the joy of actually doing science? Getting the public involved in hands-on science lab activities is another way to communicate science. Our college promotes science outreach to high school teachers and students as a way to foster a generation of science-literate citizens, and we do this through biotechnology lab kits that we lend to high school teachers and students - for more information, go to http://web.arc.losrios.edu/~biotech/education_collaborative.html. We find this an effective way to communicate science and getting people engaged in thinking about science.

  5. Jenny Reply | Permalink

    Just discovered this blog, and it's great -- thanks, Matt! I'm actually finishing up my very last paper for my master's degree, and it's on how (and why) scientists get trained in communications -- or not, as the case may be. I work with scientists at a research institution in Mexico, and the trust issue you mention extends beyond just what scientists can and will say to the media. It even affects what they feel they can and should talk to each other about, and especially across the age gaps at an institution. If the administration doesn't want you talking to the media, the chances that they'll encourage you to communicate even within the institution are slim (because that could easily leak out, I suppose it what they're thinking). But more than that, I think it's a control issue: the administration wants to control the information, which trickles down into how scientists interact among themselves. I'd be interested to know if others agree -- or disagree!

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Interesting -- and not entirely surprising. I think that sort of atmosphere varies from institution to institution, and even from department to department or lab to lab. Would love to see your paper when it's published.

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