Providing Tools for Scientists and Engineers, “Communicating Science” Program Expands its Reach

Launched with a seed grant in 2008, an effort to help researchers effectively communicate beyond academia had served 658 scientists and engineers by mid-October 2009 through 10 workshops, two Webinars, and a related multimedia Web site.

Recently, for example, the “Communicating Science” program—supported by AAAS, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and individual host institutions—offered a workshop for 80 researchers in Little Rock, Arkansas. The event took place 1 October 2009, during the annual meeting of NSF Arkansas EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Of all workshop attendees, 70% have been early-career scientists, ranging from doctoral-degree candidates to associate professors, reported Tiffany Lohwater, the AAAS public engagement manager who directs the Communicating Science program. Workshop attendance has remained strong, with an average of 66 researchers participating in each event, and 98 on hand for a February 2009 workshop at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.


This graphic, illustrating the difference between peer-to-peer communications within science realms, versus outreach to the general public, often provokes “Ah ha!” moments during workshops, organizers say.
Credit: © Clive Cookson, Financial Times.

Earlier-career researchers may be increasingly interested in communicating their results because of funding agency requirements, including NSF's Broader Impacts Criterion, which encourages education and public outreach, Lohwater noted. But she added that many researchers also seem to be internally motivated to seek out local speaking opportunities and to leverage social media technologies.

“There may be a growing realization that being able to communicate scientific findings to the public, to the news media, and to policymakers can help a researcher become more successful overall,” she said.

Issues at the intersection of science and society—from human embryonic stem cell research to evolution, and from the study of “personal” topics such as sexual behaviors, to global climate change and vaccine development—may also drive some scientists to hone their presentation skills, said Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. At the same time, a weak economy may tend to prompt researchers and the lay public alike to become increasingly aware of the relationship between scientific capacity and national prosperity.

“Everyone needs a fundamental understanding and comfort with science and technology in order to prosper in a modern society,” said Leshner, who directs the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “It's also true that communication between science and society must be positive and strong in order for science to thrive.”

U.S. President Barack Obama promised during his inaugural speech to “restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions,” Leshner noted. The administration clearly wants to encourage dialogue and public conversation on key topics, but this will require new models and mechanisms for execution, he added. Toward that end, the president issued a memorandum calling on federal agencies to develop specific strategies for engaging the public.

Lohwater and workshop facilitator Denise Graveline, president of the Washington, D.C.-based firm don't get caught[www.dontgetcaught.biz] have reported positive feedback from researchers who take part in the Communicating Science events. In fact, Lohwater said, one participant at the Little Rock workshop was so inspired that she announced plans to rework a poster that her group had developed to promote its community outreach lab tours.

As reported in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, researcher Allison K. Leidner of the University of Maryland had a similar “Eureka!” moment during the AAAS training when she suddenly understood how to explain that an environment that's bad for butterflies may negatively affect other living creatures, too. “You can explain what you want without the word 'endemic,'” Leidner told a reporter with The Chronicle. “So why make it more confusing?”

After the training, Leidner was able to apply her new communications skills while explaining her butterfly research to North Carolina policy-makers on Capitol Hill.

When asked why NSF continues to collaborate with AAAS on the time-intensive Communicating Science program, Dana Topousis, the agency's head of media and public affairs said: “The world is changing so much. We're finding it ever-more important for researchers to be able to communicate with audiences that may not understand their research, and to be able to speak on their own behalf. Researchers themselves need to be able to communicate their work to generate broad public support for their goals.”

In addition, Topousis said, NSF works to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and the best role models are today's leading researchers. She noted that Jeff Nesbit, the director of NSF's Office of Legislative & Public Affairs, routinely participates in the regional communications workshops to demonstrate the agency's high level of commitment to such efforts.

A typical workshop begins with Nesbit's summary of NSF efforts to connect with the public using an array of multimedia tools, Graveline explained. A sub-group of public information officers then moves to a separate room for further NSF training while Graveline directs the workshop tailored for scientists and engineers.

For the researchers, a pivotal lesson involves learning to think about messages from the perspective of an audience member. “That particular point can be quite a revelation,” Graveline said. “Many scientists start preparing for presentations or interviews based on what they want to say, rather than what the audience needs to hear or will find interesting. So, we spend time in the workshops translating information into concepts that are easier for public audiences to grasp and explore further.”

Graveline helps participants drill down to their three core points. She also reviews tips for using gestures and language to enliven public speaking. Finally, 6-10 participants field questions on camera and receive feedback from Graveline and other attendees. “We try to stress that the goal of the camera work is not to embarrass anyone, but to help them see how they come across when they're speaking. For many people, that's a transformative experience. A lot of scientists may have a more introverted personality, so for them, this is a really big opportunity to practice in a safe place.”

The Communicating Science program was established with a startup grant from the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation. Currently, AAAS is continuing to work with NSF, NOAA, and individual institutions interested in hosting workshops. Seven workshops are planned during the 2009-2010 academic year, with plans for several more events pending.

Other AAAS strategies for engaging the press and the public include outreach to community organizations and science centers, town hall-style meetings, and the following specific programs:

  • Science Update—a weekly radio show;
  • EurekAlert!—the premier online science-news site for journalists and public visitors;
  • Mass Media Fellowships—for graduate, postdoctoral and other earlier-career scientists;
  • Family Science Days and Meet the Scientist! Speakers—at the AAAS Annual Meeting;
  • Public Science Day—bringing science to local schools during the Annual Meeting;
  • Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion—fostering multi-directional discussions;
  • Project 2061—and other science-literacy efforts;
  • AAAS YouTube and Facebook and Twitter sites—plus other social media efforts.

In addition, AAAS recently was tapped to facilitate a new Policy Innovation Network. Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the project will use electronic platforms to broadly solicit expertise on emerging science-related policies. Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and technologist best known for helping to pioneer the realm of social media and blogging with his influential blog, Dashes.com, and for his role in founding Six Apart, was named 14 October to serve as director of the AAAS Policy Innovation Network.