If science is a beacon of hope that may pull us out of the murky miasma of misinformation and disinformation that has been spreading as virulently as COVID-19, then science communication is the lifeline that connects us to that light. A longtime leading advocate of this specialized field of communication is 2021 AAAS Fellow Alan Alda, who helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.
Like many prescient innovators, the acclaimed actor, director, best-selling author, and host for 11 years of PBS’ "Scientific American Frontiers" saw the importance of sharing and understanding science in a relatable, digestible manner. For Alda, this passion for science was rooted in his love of learning and discovery, which he had even as a young child.
“I was interested in science before I realized it was science that I was interested in,” says Alda. “I was always trying to figure out how things got to where they were.” In his 20s, he says, he found himself devouring science magazines and books, and this curiosity, as well as his approachable nature, made him the perfect host for the long-running popular PBS science show.
As the show was ending in 2005, Alda thought about how unique the experience had been in the way it had veered from the traditional way scientists typically presented information — i.e., a lecture or an interview in which they may answer a set list of questions.
“I was really trying to understand what the scientists were telling me about their work… and that turned into a dynamic relationship, and they forgot about the camera and were concentrating on me, trying to get me to understand,” recalls Alda. “We had a personal connection that made the conversation more accessible to people watching… it kept the language plain because I couldn’t absorb it [otherwise], and it brought out who the scientist really was, so they were more accessible to the public.”
Alda was struck by the parallels he saw between these interactions and the experiences he had as a performer, relating to fellow actors. “I did a lot of improvising as a young actor, and that changed me [both] as an actor and as a person because the connection was more potent,” says Alda. “And it’s what the scientists and I were doing.”
He reflected on the way many scientists struggled to speak conversationally with laypeople about their work, and recalls thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could train scientists to be communicators and be personal like this with audiences without needing somebody like me standing beside them, helping it happen?”
That epiphany inspired Alda to reach out to universities to gauge interest in setting up such a program, but he didn't get much traction. “Almost nobody was interested... (Now) we’ve gone through a real change in terms of the recognition of how important it is to communicate science better.” He attributes this shift to a growing awareness of and reaction to what he calls “an amazing stepping away from science.”
Today, the Alda Center has thus far trained some 20,000 scientists and medical professionals around the world to share science in a clear, engaging and accessible manner.
What’s particularly remarkable is that Alda has been able to do all this whilst continuing to work as an actor. He could have easily chosen to sit back and relax on his considerable, mountain-sized laurels: he is a winner of six Emmy Awards and an Emmy Honor (and a staggering 34-time nominee); an Academy Award nominee; and a Tony Award nominee who has been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He’s starred in memorable roles in some of the most successful, American-experience-defining shows in television history such as “M*A*S*H” and “The West Wing,” as well as countless roles in film and theater. He is also the recipient of numerous science honors including, most recently, the Kavli Foundation’s Distinguished Science Communicator Award in 2021.
Alda is still going strong, working with The Alda Center on projects like the Women in STEM Leadership Program; The Link, which is a platform that connects science communication researchers with trainers and practitioners; and Climate Conversations, an online program designed to help scientists and other experts talk about the climate crisis with different types of audiences.
If that wasn’t already impressive enough, Alda also hosts two podcasts — “Clear + Vivid with Alan Alda,” which features engaging conversations about communication with luminaries from disparate fields (such as renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) and an offshoot podcast, called “Science Clear + Vivid,” which features conversations specifically with scientists on compelling topics ranging from the hunt for the Higgs boson and whether cuttlefish ponder. Alda’s interviews are as entertaining as his apparent love of science is infectious.
And, he notes, he makes time to play at least one or two chess matches with his wife of 64 years, Arlene.
As he continues his work to nurture and perfect science communication, Alda hopes that more schools will routinely incorporate science communication training as they educate scientists. Under his steady and stalwart stewardship, we might just be able to find our way back to science again.