Early on in graduate school, I had the opportunity to spend a day on Capitol Hill discussing science policy with members of Congress. The Coalition for the Life Sciences periodically brings in biologists for these “Capitol Hill Days” as a vehicle to improve the communication between scientists and legislators. It’s a great initiative and I’m glad I was able to participate.
Admittedly, though, that day did little to turn me on to politics. I was frustrated by our representatives’ limited understanding of science as well as narrow interest in only the research with direct implications for health and disease, particularly in areas that affected them personally. Case in point, one staff member asked if any of us studied lipids because a relative of the senator had a lipid metabolism disorder and would be particularly interested in supporting that. I did, in fact, study lipids but had no clue how to respond appropriately since my research didn't have immediate clinical relevance. (Plus I know I'm not the only one to roll my eyes at having to link everything back to a horrific disease for people to take interest). By the end of the visit, I just wanted to go back to talking science with other scientists.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago when I attended a program sponsored by Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science (CCS). This new institute is dedicated to teaching scientists how to effectively describe their work- not only to other scientists but also to the people who fund their research, policymakers, and the general public. I was there along with faculty and administrators from colleges and universities around the world to learn about the CCS’s curriculum and why this training is critical for our graduate students and postdocs.
Going through this week of training prompted me to recall my prior experience on Capital Hill and reflect on how it could’ve been improved had I been exposed to the kinds of courses the CCS offers.
One problem going into my visit to Washington, DC is that I wasn’t prepared to talk science with a lay audience. I didn’t know where to begin and how much detail to give to anyone outside my field. What’s more, I was hesitant to “dumb down” my research or make it personal. Had I received practical instruction on how to distill and tailor a message to different audiences, skills the CCS teaches, I might not have felt like I was speaking a different language and avoided becoming frustrated or impatient. And as I also learned, being simple and clear, using analogies, and humanizing a story isn’t dumbing down or detracting from the seriousness of the topic, it’s being a good communicator. If the listener doesn’t understand or care to understand because of an an unwillingness to lose the jargon or inability to explan its relevance- it’s my fault not theirs.
Another issue brought to light by my Capitol Hill visit is that while I recognized the importance of working with policymakers and educating the public, at the time I reasoned it didn’t have to be MY responsibility. After all, I wasn’t planning on going into science policy or journalism. But Alan Alda, who gave the keynote at the CCS, argues that, “communication is not something extra you add to science, it is of the essence of science.” Cornelia Dean, science writer and former editor at the New York Times, elaborates on this point in her book Am I Making Myself Clear: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. She writes:
“We need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill their obligations to society. It is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.”
Unfortunately, too many scientists think like I used to, “I’m a researcher not a writer or politician.” I believe this mentality arises because engaging the public isn’t rewarded or encouraged in a scientific career. If we instilled the importance of communication early and provided the tools for doing it effectively, we might see a shift in this way of thinking. And for those still reluctant to engage non-scientists, Carl Safina, author, scientist, and one of the CCS instructors, issued the following statement:
“If you choose not to communicate what you do, your work will be increasingly irrelevant. Even worse, you will condemn the rest of us to receive information from sources who may be ignorant or who choose to distort and misinform for their own gain.”
Needless to say, by the end of CCS’s program, I was convinced to include science communication training in future Science Alliance programming. Now if only I could go back and explain why my doctoral research on lipids was important despite not curing any lipid disorders...
Stay tuned, the next blog post will present practical ways you can start to communicate with the public.