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Julia Moore champions scientists as communicators

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AAAS Fellow Julia Moore has spent her career trying to help scientists improve how they communicate with the public and policy makers (Photo: Pew Charitable Trusts)

Long before there were workshops and conferences about science communication, there was Julia Moore.

The AAAS Fellow and communication expert has spent a long and distinguished career in Washington, D.C., working on a variety of science and public health issues from nuclear arms to nanotechnology.

Along the way, Moore developed a few theories about policy and communication that have proven true for her again and again. They go like this:

 

* Policy is often made not on facts, but emotion and relationships.
* Technical experts must gain the trust of decision makers and the public.
* Building trust requires clear communication, not jargon-laden lectures.

"Either you have that communication and you have that trust or you don't," says Moore. "And when you don't, you don't achieve your policy goals."

Whether it's arms treaties or basic research funding, the same communication rules apply, she observes. "It's meat and potatoes to someone who has worked in the Washington policy arena, but I think they are sometimes ignored by scientists."

Moore has passionately championed science communication throughout her career in senior positions at organizations as varied as the State Department, World Wildlife Fund and National Science Foundation. Since 2009, she has worked for Pew Charitable Trusts, where she helps to improve its research capacity and investigates new issues the organization may work on.

Wherever she worked, she sought to improve how scientists talk with the public. She's had no formal scientific training, which allows her to bring a layperson perspective to issues, and her experiences in government and on Capitol Hill have given her an inside look at how to get through to politicians who control research funding.

"We are not going to solve the problems of the 21st century unless there is better communication between scientists and the public," Moore stressed.

Unfortunately, this skill is often under-appreciated and misunderstood in the scientific community, she notes:

"A lot of people in science want to lecture and not listen. They want people to be where they are, curiosity-driven for the sake of new knowledge—as opposed to where people really are, which is worried about their bills or their children's health or the world their grandchildren are going to grow up in."

Interest groups often host lectures for members of Congress and their staffers to cover the basics of topics such as climate change or stem cell research. Moore encourages her colleagues to skip the lectures and instead build relationships with members and their staffs through one-on-one meetings. A key part of building trust is using common language—don't use "national technical means\ when "spy satellite" is much clearer. Making the issue personal also helps.

"If you show someone a certain line of research will help you be healthier or smarter or get a better job, you've got a much easier argument than if you are trying to talk in broad abstract terms about the importance of science, or the importance of basic research," Moore said.

She also is a big fan of inviting members of Congress to labs in their home states where they can see firsthand the "commitment, integrity and passion of bench scientists."

"I think we are frankly born to be natural scientists, asking questions," Moore said. "Unfortunately, we get closed down at a young age because a lot of adults don't want to answer questions, or don't want to answer questions in way that is exciting and engaging and enticing."

This is something Moore experienced herself while growing up in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1960s. She was fascinated by how the world worked but science education was not encouraged at her Catholic girls school. Her curiosity was not nurtured at home either, where sports was the key focus. She had to teach herself science by devouring books, and later, talking with experts.

Moore was equally curious about people who lived outside of her Midwestern town, and long planned to pursue international relations. She attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., after which she spent two years on the Hill gaining insight into the policymaking world.

She began to apply her communication theories while working at the State Department, building public understanding of Latin American and European issues, particularly arms control treaties with the former Soviet Union. After a decade there, she decided to leave because she and her husband, fellow foreign service officer Harry Blaney, could no longer get joint assignments overseas due to nepotism rules.

"We had this old-fashioned notion that married couples ought to live together," Moore says wryly.

Her communication skills landed her a post as vice president of communications at World Wildlife Fund, a dramatic change, but Moore says she didn't think explaining conservation biology would be any more challenging than explaining arms control treaties. She just needed enough time to "get up to speed on finding out the difference between a polar bear and a panda bear."

Later, when she interviewed to become director of legislative and public affairs at the National Science Foundation, Moore was shocked to find out how little press coverage the agency received. She warned them not to hire her if they wanted to maintain the status quo. 

Neal Lane, NSF Director from 1993 to 1998, agreed the agency thought of itself as a sleepy engineering department unconcerned about its public image before Moore arrived. 

"I think she had influence across the whole foundation to make everybody more aware of thinking about our audiences and how we present our stories," Lane said. "I think it's had a significant impact not just at the time, but over time."

Moore notes that Lane is an exceptionally good science communicator and embraced the change, yet he and many others faced criticism within the scientific community for their work as civic scientists.

While she sees more and more scientists, particularly younger researchers, reaching out beyond the ivory tower, she is concerned the system still does not encourage and reward public engagement.

"You don't get Nobel Prizes for science communication," she said. "There should be recognition within the scientific community that this is an incredibly important function and role for scientists."

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AAAS Fellow Julia Moore has spent her career trying to help scientists improve how they communicate with the public and policy makers (Photo: Pew Charitable Trusts)
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Laura Petersen