Communicating Science: A Roundtable Discussion

Three educators who specialize in helping scientists become better communicators state a strong case for why scientists should engage the world beyond their labs, and share some of the most important principles for good communications.

The Researchers

Robert Irion
Tiffany Lohwater
Howard Schneider

Never before have there been more opportunities for working scientists to reach out to the public about their work... and many would argue that never before were there so many reasons for doing so. They point to high schools needing inspiration for a new generation of scientists, or legislatures needing to understand the benefits of scientific initiatives that vitally depend on a shrinking pool of public funds, or a world whose health depends on everyone understanding the body of knowledge only science can provide.

So why do too many scientists remain unconvinced that good communication skills should be integral to their careers? And for those who are convinced, why does communicating well often prove difficult?

In this roundtable discussion, three educators who specialize in helping scientists become better communicators stated a strong case for why scientists can and should engage the world beyond their labs, faculty lounges and campuses. They also discussed their own experience working with scientists and shared some of the most important principles for good communications.

The participants:

  • Robert Irion – Program Director and Senior Lecturer at the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which prepares people with a background in science – from graduating university students and postdocs to career scientists – for a career in journalism.
  • Tiffany Lohwater – Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she organizes the AAAS Annual Meeting and plays a lead role implementing workshops and resources on science communication for scientists, including Communicating Science: Tools for Scientists and Engineers.
  • Howard Schneider – Founding Dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University where he helped launch the Center for Communicating Science – a center that provides instruction nationwide to future and current scientists interested in communicating more effectively with the public.

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION (TKF): Science has propelled civilization for centuries with teams of scientists completely unskilled at communications, let alone able to communicate to the public. Why should it matter now?

TIFFANY LOHWATER: From AAAS’s perspective, as a membership organization, there are a lot of issues that scientists have an obligation to comment on. There are a lot of opportunities, more and more with today’s changing media, for direct communication between scientists and non-scientists. Many early career scientists want to do a better job communicating with the public, and we have an obligation to give them the resources they need.

Howard Schneider
Howard Schneider, founding Dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University where he launched Center for Communicating Science, for more than 35 years Schneider was at Newsday – first reporting, then as managing editor and editor – a period when the paper won eight Pulitzer Prizes.

HOWARD SCHNEIDER: There are societal reasons for why scientists should become more effective communicators, and there are also reasons of self-interest. Obviously science is intersecting with some crucial public policy decisions that the country is faced with. Climate change, genetically modified food, the degree to which we are going to invest in space exploration – if scientists don't communicate actively in these areas then that space is going to be taken up by other people and we may not be make intelligent public policy decisions that are in the best interest of the country. That's already been happening. Secondly, from a self-interested point of view, scientists are competing for funding. Interdisciplinary science is on the rise, and scientists need to communicate across disciplines. It’s in their self-interest, it’s going to help their career and it’s going to help them get funding. And it's going to help their institution as well.

ROBERT IRION: I would add that scientists are obligated to report on the results of their taxpayer-funded work. You could almost view it as the annual report of what they’ve done with their funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or from the National Science Foundation (NSF) or from another federally funded agency. More and more agencies expect or require scientists to convey the results of their projects, as well as their ongoing challenges and progress, to the folks who ultimately fund that research, the general public. Beyond that, I would also say that scientists play critical roles in offering public comments, giving talks, writing articles, serving as sources for reporters, and motivating the next generation of science students and researchers. We hear a lot from the NSF and the AAAS about how we must enhance the pipeline of future scientists. We really need to get people interested in science quite early in their K-12 education, and then keep them interested in college and beyond. By publicly talking about their work to different audiences at different levels, scientists can contribute quite integrally to make sure that the pipeline remains full.

SCHNEIDER: I would add just one more thing about the need for compelling science communication. All citizens should understand the need for evidence-based decision-making. And science is perhaps the poster child, if not the prime example, of a process that carefully weighs the evidence before reaching a conclusion. We need science teachers who are gifted communicators not only to inspire the next generation of scientists, but to explain the process of science to every student so that they understand the value of evidence-based decision making.

TKF: How wide do you think is the gulf between Americans and their understanding of science and scientists, and where do you think it’s most worrisome?

IRION: I'm continually surprised by the ignorance and willful disregard of the scientific method, even in my own university town. And around the country there are hotbeds of resistance to childhood vaccinations and water fluoridation, for instance. There is a profound belief in astrology, to the point where people use it to dictate some of their life decisions. The more that scientists can be vocal and eloquent about pseudoscience, and about why the scientific method is an appropriate way to approach issues that shape social policy, the better off we will be. Right now the scientific voices tend to be drowned out by the more sensational or fear-driven views in our communities.

TKF: Tiffany, one of the communications programs that AAAS offers is a fellowship program for scientists who work on policy issues on Capitol Hill. How wide do you think the gulf is between scientists and lawmakers, or more broadly in Washington?

Tiffany Lohwater
Tiffany Lohwater, Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the AAAS, Lohwater’s background includes previously working at Johns Hopkins University as a science writer and a media relations specialist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

LOHWATER: Scientists who come to Capitol Hill often think they're going to give people information and that policy decisions will be made based predominantly on science. And many of them realize, once they get here, that science is one factor at the table and there are also a lot of other factors being balanced. And so scientists – even very senior scientists – need to do a better job of connecting how that scientific information is relevant to the policy world as well. They’re really at a loss as to how to interact with policy makers effectively.

TKF: Of course most lawmakers come from the law, and very few of them are actually scientists and engineers.

SCHNEIDER: We’re not going to have a legislature filled with scientists. The challenge is for the scientists to be able to communicate very effectively with those legislators. On both sides of the aisle there are intelligent people, and scientists need to be able to communicate effectively.

TKF: Each of you trains scientists who are interested in communicating science. Tell us about the scientists who seek out your programs.

IRION: The scientists who come to my program range from those with bachelor’s degrees all the way through PhDs and even career scientists who have been working for 10 or 20 years. They are so passionate about public communication and so insatiably curious about the broad sweep of the scientific enterprise that they would prefer not to focus on one area of study. So they're leaving academia or industry to become full-time working journalists.

LOHWATER: We've really designed our program for early career scientists. Some of them may be thinking about making a career change, but many others just want to do a better job of talking about their work. Scientists come to us because they’re faced with a situation where they have to give a talk on Capitol Hill, or to a school group. We frame our program as a communications course, so it's kind of like “Communications 101” for non-Communications majors.

SCHNEIDER: Most of the people who come to us are self-selected because they want to do a better job talking about their science with colleagues or to public audiences. They are concerned about the gaps that we talked about between the public and the scientific community. We had one graduate student who said that when she went home for Thanksgiving, she could never explain to her grandmother what she did. And her grandmother was always very excited but she could never tell her what she did. She really wanted to explain her work in ways that people would understand. Many are younger people – postdocs and early career scientists – who recognize they have a responsibility to communicate what they know. But we’re finding an increasing number of older scientists who seem to want to participate in this cultural change, as well.

TKF: In academia, scientists are not traditionally rewarded for developing effective communication skills so they can speak with the general public.

SCHNEIDER: I think that’s beginning to change. At Stony Brook some students seeking a Masters degree in Marine Science are now required to take communications courses. That’s a sea change in culture. Certainly if science professors were required to demonstrate proficiency in communicating their work to public audiences as part of the tenure process, that would change the culture in a hurry. It would be more of a tsunami!

TKF: Howie, you had mentioned earlier there is a cultural shift underway toward this increased interest in communication. Why do you think this is happening now, as opposed to a decade, or two decades ago?

SCHNEIDER: I think in part it's because of the communications revolution. We are all living in a revolution in terms of the way that people are getting information, and I think younger scientists are very much plugged in and clued in to this idea that there is a communications eco-structure. People are sharing information, there is a lot of information available, and there's a lot of misinformation available. I think many of these younger scientists are much more savvy about this. I also think that they understand that communicating science is in their self-interest, for so many reasons.

TKF: Are scientists in certain fields more interested in becoming better communicators than in others?

LOHWATER: We’ve observed some differences between fields in our program, but not as much as you might expect. Scientists involved in technology, human health, and ecology – all things that have more immediate societal impacts – are very interested in getting skills because they need to be able to communicate with people to do their work. Scientists who do fieldwork and interact with people regularly seem to be the ones most interested in seeking communication skills.

SCHNEIDER: We find the same thing. We see it in areas of science that intersect with the public and where outreach is part of what scientists are doing, and where the science is important to public policy issues. People involved in marine and atmospheric science, public health, ecology and evolution – I think they are the early adapters. However, we’re increasingly finding people in chemistry and in physics who are also interested. But I think it's those departments that intersect with public policy that is seeking better communication skills.

Robert Irion
Robert Irion, Program Director and Senior Lecturer at the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Irion is an accomplished author and journalist who has written for Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist and other outlets.

IRION: I can add a few statistics from my program and other graduate training programs in science communication, where scientists do decide to make this full transition to public outreach. Roughly three-quarters of our students are from the life sciences, covering most of the fields that Howard and Tiffany just mentioned. We always have one or two neuroscientists in our program, and marine science has been a big area for us. Ecology is also a huge area, and we get lots of bench biologists who are very interested in reporting on public health – taking what they've learned in the classroom and lab and applying it to societally important issues in the health enterprise. One-quarter of our students are typically from the physical sciences – chemistry, physics, Earth sciences and astronomy.

We've seen these statistics hold fairly steady, and I don't know if there's anything sociologically to be said about life scientists being slightly more open to considering a career in science communication. But the outcome is that there are quite a few really terrific life science and public health writers out there. In contrast, in the physical sciences there is still a demand for writers who can report reliably and accurately and with style about the physical science enterprise. It's a bit harder.

SCHNEIDER: What I find ironic is that when you think about who the iconic science communicators have been, what scientists come to mind? It's often the physicists who are dealing with perhaps the most complicated of sciences. Scientists like Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan and Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking – who I think is the single most recognized scientist now in the world – turn out to be the real popular science communicators. I'm not sure why, except that they deal with subjects that inspire awe and mystery and capture the public imagination.

TKF: Briefly tell me about how you designed your program and how it is tailored for scientists.

LOHWATER: We started the AAAS program about five years ago. A lot of early scientists were coming to us seeking help with communication, and we wanted to be responsive to the needs of our members. We felt there was a need for a general communications course, and we have a website as well where you can get additional information. It's really meant to provide an entry-level perspective on what scientists need to be thinking about.

TKF: And then you have this fellowship program in Washington, correct?

LOHWATER: Yes, but we also have a mass media fellowship program that places scientists at different media outlets throughout the country. That fellowship and our science and technology policy fellowship program are probably our two most well-known fellowship programs.

TKF: And Rob?

IRION: We've had many students who have decided that their experience in the AAAS mass media fellowship program was so terrific that they would like to pursue science journalism as a career. Every year we have one or two students who have gone through that fellowship.

The UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program has existed for 32 years. We exclusively accept applications from students with science degrees, from bachelors to PhDs and sometimes working scientists who have been researchers or faculty members. We accept ten students per year, so we have a small cohort. But over time this has built up, so now we have more than 250 graduates of the Santa Cruz program. They're out there now, reporting science for different audiences, from the general public to children to audiences of specialists for trade journals. We have some folks who go into broadcast in radio and television. And increasingly we have former scientists who are now reporting about science almost exclusively online.

TKF: Howie, the idea for the Center for Communicating Science was sparked after a visit to Stony Brook by the actor Alan Alda, correct?

Alda, a devoted advocate for communicating science
Alan Alda, co-founder of the Center for Communicating Science, speaks before SLAC during a CCS communications workshop hosted by the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (Courtesy: SLAC)

SCHNEIDER: Yes, the genesis of our program involved Mr. Alda, who came to Stony Brook five years ago to give a talk about some of his books. He noted that he had been a host of “Scientific American Frontiers” for more than a decade and had interviewed 700 scientists all over the world. He said he was troubled by the fact that these scientists had incredibly compelling stories to tell – probing the mysteries of the universe, and overcoming a lot of tremendous obstacles to make advances – but when he had many of them in front of the camera they were not able to tell their stories effectively and vividly and personally.

Alda asked the president of the University if she might think about what could be done about that. He was an evangelist for not just helping scientists at workshops but embedding communications courses in the education of the next generation of scientists.

After his visit we were able to begin the Center for Communicating Science by offering workshops to working scientists at several laboratories and universities. We perfected our techniques and began a series of graduate courses that are now available through any of the graduate and PhD and Masters programs. We emphasize foundational skills that can be applied for diverse audiences and situations and it begins with one simple lesson: how to connect with your audience. There is a profound recognition that communication doesn't exist if your audience doesn't get it.

TKF: Part of your program involves scientists doing improvisational theater.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, Alan Alda has developed a course in improvisational theater that we teach to all of our students. It’s not about turning scientists into actors. It’s about making them dynamically attentive to other people, about teaching them to pick up cues from the audience. We also offer some foundational courses in distilling your message, taking your science and making it accessible for a variety of audiences, different kinds of audiences. Not dumbing down but making it accessible and powerful. As part of the process we emphasize telling stories about your work. Stories are very powerful, and stories attract other people. Scientists somehow have this resistance to wanting to be personal and vivid and tell stories, and they have great stories to tell. It doesn't mean they are any less a scientist by telling stories. And so we emphasize that, and then after those foundational courses we offer a series of courses and workshops in more complicated communication. Communicating digitally directly with the public. Writing, which gets to be a more complicated and difficult subject to learn well. It takes more time. We offer a course on connecting with the community.

TKF: And you conduct these workshops outside Stony Brook.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. We are now exporting these workshops around the country. For example, with Kavli’s support, we conducted a three–day workshop at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA last year. We conducted sessions in improvisational theater, distilling the message, writing for the public and had experienced journalists interview the participants on camera and play back the results. More recently, we worked with KIPAC and scientists at SLAC and added a special interactive session on speaking to members of Congress. Both workshops were extremely well-received. Now we’re exploring ways to follow up and help the participants on an ongoing basis.

TKF: What are the most important words of advice or direction you provide scientists?

LOHWATER: We talk about how communicating science with the public is different than communicating science with someone in your field. They need to recognize that upfront. We remind them that true communication is a two-way street – it’s about conversation and responding to the other person instead of lecture. We encourage them to learn from other scientists who are good communicators.

IRION: Howard was talking about storytelling, and we also emphasize that from the beginning. We immediately try to put scientists into the mindset of imagining not standing at a lecture podium, where they've been taking classes or teaching classes themselves, but rather talking at a neighborhood gathering or speaking with a cluster of excited high school students. If they convey infectious enthusiasm, it’s going to show in the stories they tell. They’ll portray scientists as real people who are driven by what they do, who are faced with a series of challenges and setbacks and who are overcoming these to reach a goal. Those are the stories that get people turned on to science and wanting to know more.

I think one of the best things that young scientists can do, if they're interested in doing more of this, is to go to one of the science cafés. They are springing up around the country, and it has been a wonderful grass-roots movement to bring science directly to the public through engaging talks. Listen to the types of questions from the audience. They're really going to surprise you. You're going to hear people asking about aspects of research that you might not have thought of, or that you never could have imagined would confuse them. They might wish to challenge some aspect of a controversial issue. So, listening to how scientists answer those questions, and listening to the public dialogue that arises, can be the best guide for then going back to your office and perhaps writing a blog post or op-ed about things that you now realize the public is curious about.

SCHNEIDER: One of the most important things we tell them is that it's about connecting with the audience. As I said before, communication doesn't exist because you have knowledge in your head and you presented it. It's not necessarily received on the other end. You have to think all the time about the audience. You have to know your audience and you have to find multiple ways to talk about what you do. You may even have to explain things from several different perspectives in order for a single audience to understand it. But that's your job; your job and your responsibility, not the audience’s responsibility. We also tell scientists to let their authentic self come out. Let some of that personal self come out. It doesn't negate your role as an objective scientist to talk about you and your life and your work and your passion and your disappointments and the process. That makes you more compelling. We tape our students talking about their work, before they start these improv sessions. We then tape them later, and we like to show them the changes.

TKF: Howie, after many years as a newspaper journalist and then as a journalism educator, you co-founded the Center for Science Communication at Stonybrook University in 2006. Why did science communication become a priority for you as an educator?

SCHNEIDER: I’ve been a working journalist for 35 years, and I've been very disturbed by the decline in coverage of science by many of the top publications and news outlets in the country. I think there's a huge vacuum, and I think the communications revolution has given scientists and people who are now making changes in their careers some very exciting opportunities. But I think there is a real vacuum here, and it concerns me a great deal. The absence of people who are mediating this and the danger of people filling this vacuum with misinformation scares me. I think science is increasingly important and valuable, and it’s intersecting with our lives in ways that require competent and engaging science communication. I've become more and more passionate as I've seen the lack of coverage by many of the great news organizations that I, at one point, admired. Science sections of disappeared.

TKF: Rob, you’ve been a successful science writer for many years. Along with the importance of narrative, which we’ve discussed, is there another early lesson in writing that you can convey to budding young science writers?

IRION: To spend time with scientific teams in their environments and watch them work, have them show you things, spend a night or a week with them at the observatory or in the field – that's where the rich stories come from. And those are the ones that readers will remember, because the scientists become real through those narratives. And finally, those stories have the biggest lasting impact on these issues that we've been talking about – on changing perceptions of science in society and putting a spark into young students and getting them interested in becoming such figures themselves.

TKF: Tiffany, AAAS offers fellowships to scientists who want to work on Capitol Hill in Washington, sometimes helping to craft legislation that reflects sound science. What do you think is the most valuable lesson that scientists learn while working in the nation’s capitol?

LOHWATER: I think they learn to understand the political process in D.C., which is a valuable thing to have. The scientists who are coming to the program are enthusiastic but oftentimes don't really understand how the policy process works. Some of them are interested in exploring a career in policy, some of them just do a fellowship and then go back to their research careers. But I think they all come away with a much better and deeper understanding of how our political process works. They then can take that back with them to their institutions, or they can pursue a career working in policy. That’s obviously a benefit for those of us would like to see more science in the policymaking system.

TKF: Any other final thoughts or advice?

IRION: I would encourage all scientists to devote part of their professional website to public outreach. It can be a group effort with people in your lab to put up materials that will present research in a publicly accessible way. This is one of the easiest things to do, but precious few people do it. If you look around at university websites, you'll see a wildly diverging range of both – from bare-bones websites to sites with fantastic multimedia presentations. The latter can work wonders, breaking down the divide between people in the community and researchers in academia.

LOHWATER: You never know who's going to Google you. You never know when someone will Google the topic you study. It's actually happened in several instances where something important happens -- like the Higgs boson discovery or a severe earthquake -- and the scientist does not have an accessible website where people could get information.

SCHNEIDER: When reporters call, talk to them. Scientists complain about how the press will get their story wrong and I think it’s a big mistake. Most scientists who do talk to the press have a satisfying result. It’s ironic really. People complain about how science is covered but then don’t talk to the media. But it isn’t fair to complain if you’re not offering yourself as part of the solution.

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