S&T Policy Fellows Hear Views on Communicating Science

A key obstacle to science-based policy is the reluctance of some researchers to communicate their findings to non-scientists, lest they may be perceived as “advocates,” rather than scientists, said Kit Batten of The Heinz Center.

Institutional barriers and the state of U.S. science education also hinder the development of effective science-based policies, she said 8 September. But scientists’ concerns about being painted as biased clearly represent a major impediment to effective science communication with reporters, policymakers and the public, she noted. Her comments were offered during an orientation session for 210 AAAS S&T Policy Fellows who were selected to participate in the program’s 2010-11 class.

Batten, a senior science and policy fellow and project director of The Heinz Center’s Institute for Science Communication and Policy Development, suggested that scientists should draw a bright line between “targeted communication” versus advocacy. She defined advocacy as “arguing or making the case for the creation or adoption of legislation or a specific policy.”

Scientists’ fear of the “advocacy” label may indeed be well-founded: Juliet Eilperin, a national reporter with the Washington Post, said that she heavily filters information from advocacy groups and individual scientists known as promoters of selected causes.

“I do see science done by science advocacy organizations as different than work done in academic or federal labs,” said Eilperin, author of Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives as well as a forthcoming book on sharks. “There are lines and when they are crossed, it does impact your standing with your colleagues and the popular media.”

In opening her presentation, Eilperin cautioned the S&T Policy Fellows that journalists are in the “information business,” and therefore should not be expected to function as educators. “I work for an unbiased media organization,” she emphasized, although she acknowledged that readers “may take away certain lessons based on my reporting.”

On the other hand, panelist Jonathan Nurse, assistant director of federal relations at the University of Washington, said that he sees himself as more of an educator than a lobbyist in the way that “lobbyist” is typically understood by the general public. Nurse also stressed that collaborating with other institutions and societies such as the Association of American Universities and Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are essential steps toward building public and policymaker support for science.

“I lobby to get students financial aid and to increase the competitive grant opportunities available to our faculty and staff,” Nurse explained in discussing his career choice with the S&T Policy Fellows. “I view my role as educating congressional members about what goes on at my campus, and educating the campus community about events on Capitol Hill.”

Why should busy scientists devote time to media interviews?

“If you ever received a dime from the federal government, you have an obligation to talk to me” and to help address the “disconnect between the public and the scientific community,” said Eilperin. She noted also that her interviews rarely require more than a half-hour of a scientists’ time.

She urged Fellows to communicate their research succinctly. One way to do this, she noted, is to think of key messages as an “inverted pyramid” with the punch line or headline at the top, followed by information that explains why the public should care about the work, and finally, background or broad perspective on the topic.

“You have to communicate differently to academic audiences than to a journalist,” she said. “How would you talk about your job at a cocktail party to a friend, to a relative?”

When asked how scientists can avoid having their research results or statements “distorted” or inaccurately reported by journalists, Eilperin said: “Know the journalist you’re talking to because they’re not all the same.”

She said also that although local journalists may sometimes need more help to report research results correctly, scientists may be able to develop productive, long-term relationships with those contacts. Local reporters may be more open to story ideas, too.

Batten agreed. “Relationship-building is really important,” she said. “You have to know who you’re talking to, but remember: There are a lot of journalists out there who really want to do a better job. You can help them.”

Congressional Fellow Marcus Extavour, whose field encompasses atomic physics and quantum optics, asked the panelists how scientists can get support for basic research if the work isn’t related to hot news topics. “How do we get attention and sustained support?” asked Extavour, whose fellowship is co-sponsored by the Optical Society of America and the international society, SPIE.

Nurse suggested identifying a champion of science. “There are policymakers who are scientists,” he noted. “Every year, we reach out to them.” He mentioned, for example, that U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey)—a former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow—has consistently demonstrated an interest in science. (In fact, while Nurse was addressing the Fellows, Holt’s office was issuing a news release regarding his support for a tax credit to encourage corporate investments in research and development.)

Panelists also tackled the question of how and when scientists should contact their institutional public information office regarding media queries or forthcoming research news. Eilperin insisted that she “never contacts press officers, period.” However, Batten said that she would usually encourage scientists to contact their press officers as a first step, particularly if the institution offers any communications training such as the AAAS Communicating Science program.

Eilperin recommended a communications resource manual, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, by Nancy Baron. Additional resources include Dennis Meredith’s Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work, and Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public, among many others. In addition, AAAS recently collected essays by reporters on how scientists can work with the news media.

The 2010-11 class of 210 Fellows is the largest in the history of the S&T Policy Fellowships. Established in 1973, the program has sent more than 2300 scientists and engineers to apply their knowledge and skills in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. During an annual two-week orientation, program Director Cynthia Robinson noted, Fellows also hear presentations on the federal budget process, the presidency, science policy and the judiciary, the legislative and executive branches, diplomacy, foreign policy, and other issues. For example, Fellows heard 2 September from Greg Ip, U.S. economics editor for The Economist, and Patrick Clemins, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

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Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.