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AAAS Public Communication Workshop Helps Scientists Become "More Vocal, More Visible"

SAN DIEGO--You might think they have their heads full worrying about climate change and disease, but some scientists also fear cocktail parties and Thanksgiving with the family.

It's where the dreaded question comes up: what do you do for a living?

Many scientists are eager to share their research with the public, but they lack the tools to turn it into a positive and productive conversation, participants agreed at a workshop at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting.

More than 60 researchers and science communication officers attended the 18 February training session, organized by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology and the National Science Foundation. In interactive sessions throughout the day, including practice talks in front of video cameras, the participants learned how to craft short but powerful messages about their work.

Their goals were as diverse as their disciplines. Meagan Moore, an atmosphere chemist at the University of California, San Diego, hoped the workshop would show her "ways to increase science literacy."  Adrienne Marriott, a program manager at the San Diego Science Alliance, wanted a way to answer the question, "'why are my tax dollars paying for this?' " Andre Doria of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography was looking for tips on presenting before a large audience.

But many of them vigorously nodded at the researcher who said she just wanted "to be able to tell the person next to me on the airplane what I do without having his eyes glaze over."

Since 2008, the AAAS-NSF workshops have trained more than 900 researchers in places such as Arkansas, New York, Oregon, and Colorado. The participants are often young scientists at the start of their careers, but the popular workshops draw researchers of all ages and all fields of study.

At this year's session, the scientists learned how to avoid technical jargon, clearly identify their audience, and distill their message into three "miniature, memorable, and meaningful" points. After spending 10 minutes drafting their message, a few brave volunteers stood up before their peers to share the details and receive constructive feedback.

The task often leads to an "ah-ha" moment for the participants, who suddenly realize why the training is so essential, said workshop facilitator Denise Graveline, president of the Washington, D.C. communications firm don't get caught.

In a room where physicists mingle with surgeons, she noted, "it makes them aware that they can't count on being immediately understood even by members of their own science tribe."

Elliot Howard, a cardiovascular bioengineer from the University of California, San Diego, was one of those who shared his message with the workshop group. The feedback was helpful, he said, in showing him how to "take a narrow research question and make it more global in scope."

Howard hopes that better speaking skills will help him land bigger grants and better career opportunities. He's not alone, said Ginger Pinholster, director of the AAAS Office of Public Programs. In an era of shrinking government and university budgets, she said, scientists see public outreach as a way to become "more vocal and visible."

But the days of making news in The New York Times or Nova are coming to an end, warned Jeff Nesbit, director of NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. In collaborations with U.S. News & World Report, NBC, and others, he said, NSF is building new outlets for science news where researchers can speak directly with the public.

And what does the public want to hear? Scientists are trained to present results, so they're often surprised when people want to know more about the process and the journey--and even the mistakes--involved in their research. And don't be afraid to talk about what you don't know, Graveline advised the group.

"When you're communicating with a public audience," she said, "they don't always know what they want to hear." But a well-crafted message is a "way to give them a menu, and offer them ways to enter the conversation."