Some Thoughts on Facilitating Science Communication by Scientists
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.
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