If you’ve been watching the series of live chats that AAAS has been hosting recently, you’ve seen Josh Ettinger’s baby.
The senior communications associate is the creator of #AAASLive, a two-month-old program of question-and-answer sessions via social media. They give members and the public the chance to ask AAAS experts about budgeting, advocacy, policymaking and more in a convenient online forum.
Ettinger was a Capitol Hill intern when he stopped by AAAS headquarters to check out a 2013 lecture on neuroscience and robotics, and ended up working here for three and a half years. He’s now on his way out the door—he’ll be starting graduate school in environmental change and management at Oxford this fall—but he took some time to talk a bit about the series before leaving.
Q: What gave you the idea to start doing these live chats?
Ettinger: Something that’s brought up by many people, from staff members to board members, is how to reach new and young audiences. A group of staff across the association meets every day at noon, and it’s basically a brain trust of people who can help AAAS respond to emerging issues and run interdepartmental initiatives. It struck me when Facebook unveiled its live feature—and Twitter has one as well, called Periscope—that we could leverage these tools to further communicate our message and explore a variety of topics.
Then the March for Science became a thing, organically, and there was a demand for high-level explanations of various topics for not just scientists, but non-scientists and science advocates as well. So I realized we could do a weekly chat on a different topic every single week.
Q: What's involved in producing one?
Ettinger: Every medium has its pros and cons. The pros of the live chat are that you can hit a huge audience—people can quickly re-tweet and share the link, and they can interact with you in real time. So I pluck a few interesting staff members from around the organization, from our affiliates, and also a few of our Leshner Leadership Fellows, suggest a topic, put them in front of a smartphone and hit the live button. You can see thousands of people watching in real time. They're sending questions, and I pass those questions along to the moderators on an iPad. It's a really unique, innovative engagement tool. It’s very accessible. It’s just one click away, and it’s highly interactive.
Q: Which live chat drew the most interest so far?
Ettinger: By far, the discussion on what the president’s budget request means for science. These live chats going forward will continue to be useful tools for AAAS to rapidly respond to emerging issues. When there's a lot of uncertainty about an issue, people can directly ask questions of AAAS experts. I suspect as there are further developments with the budget and other issues in the political sphere, these live chats will continue to be watched with interest.
Q: What are some of the most common questions you get from your audience?
Ettinger: Common topics are often related to the current political environment. How do we stand up for science while remaining nonpartisan? How do you communicate across the aisle? How do we get everyone on board behind science and evidence-based policymaking? How do we help ensure that lawmakers base their decisions on evidence, without appearing like just another interest group?
Q: Have you had any instance where the questioners have stumped the panel, or produced an unusual response?
Ettinger: The thing that’s interesting about live chats is that they’re very candid. You can’t go back and filter your responses—which makes some speakers nervous. The chats are very conversational. You see a lot of questions that you wouldn’t normally, questions from individuals of very different backgrounds. For example, when a conversation about science gets heated, how do you de-escalate it? It’s a good question that I’d never heard asked before. Experts can overlook certain things that more casual participants notice. It’s important to have diverse perspectives.
Q: What role did #AAASLive have in the march?
Ettinger: The week before the March, we held two live chats specifically for marchers. We had a live chat with the head of our communications office, Tiffany Lohwater, and another expert talking about messaging for the March—here are the kinds of messages you'll find more effective, productive and positive. We also ran a webinar with experts from a variety of affiliate societies who discussed how you should engage with different audiences. How do you work effectively with the media, policymakers and the public? After the March, we held a live chat with our CEO, Rush Holt, and other science society leaders to discuss what the March meant and what’s next.
Q: And since these are posted online, AAAS members can leverage their own social media outlets to spread the news, right?
Ettinger: Exactly, and we hope that if there’s a topic that members want to have a conversation about, they will contact us either through the AAAS website, MemberCentral, or Trellis. It’s just a part of AAAS’ broader efforts to use a variety of tools at our disposal to continue being the force for science.