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Science by Scientists: S&T Policy Fellows Produce New Podcast

Podcast microphone


AAAS Science & Technology Fellows have released the newest episode of their podcast, "Sci on the Fly." | arinahabich/AdobeStock

Listen up, podcast fans: The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows are working to cultivate public dialogue on science and science policy with the help of a new medium. Developed, written, and produced entirely by the fellows, the “Sci on the Fly” podcast has released its second episode.

The latest episode tackles two related subjects recently in the news: the Zika virus and the Olympics. ”Sci on the Fly" founder Beth Linas, along with policy fellows Claire Schulkey and Shobhana Gupta, trace the surprising history of the Zika virus and explore how mass gatherings like the Olympics can play a role in spreading disease. The episode is the first to include an interview with an expert outside of the S&T Policy Fellowships program: Bruce Y. Lee, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has done extensive research on the Zika virus.

According to Linas, “Sci on the Fly” is, to her knowledge, the first podcast about science policy produced by scientists.

In developing the podcast, Linas, an epidemiologist and an S&T Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation, drew inspiration from the “Sci on the Fly” blog, where current fellows and alumni write about an array of science policy issues. Linas, saw podcasts as a way to complement, not compete with, the blog, and draw upon the fellows’ diverse academic backgrounds. For fellows more comfortable communicating verbally rather than through writing, podcasts provide a new platform from which to tell stories about science and science policy, she said.

After consulting with the blog’s founders and pitching the podcast to the S&T Policy Fellowships (STPF) team at AAAS, Linas reached out to the other fellows in an open call for collaborators.

“A really good cross-section of scientists” expressed interest, Linas said. Their range of expertise proved to be very useful in a discussion about the scope of the podcast’s first episode, an exploration of the scientific method.

The topic of the initial episode grew out of Linas’ observation of the colleagues in her group of S&T Policy Fellows: those from distinct scientific disciplines approached the scientific method in different ways. As an epidemiologist, “I was trained in one specific kind of methodology of how to think and ask questions and do research,” Linas said. Yet “that’s not how everyone thinks through their research,” she said.

The first episode brings Linas and five other fellows from different disciplines – a physicist, an anthropologist, a computational biologist, a physician scientist, and an astrophysicist – together to explore how these disciplines use and interpret the scientific method.

To record that episode, Linas simply “pulled the trigger” at a podcast meeting. “I brought a mic and I said, ‘Guys, we’re just going to have a conversation.’”

While Linas spearheaded the podcast, it is a group effort, she said. Any fellow can pitch a topic that interests them. The structure of each episode – how to fill the 30-minute running time – is then determined by the fellow who suggested the topic. The show’s “owner” conducts the required interviews for the podcast, deciding whether to speak with policy fellows, external experts, or both, maps out a script for the episode, and writes and records any voiceovers needed to provide additional context.

Linas has strived to keep in place a low barrier for interested fellows to get involved. “We don’t expect people to come in knowing how to do it,” she said.

For instance, “we have an app that people can use on their phone, so you don’t necessarily need to have a microphone [on] your computer,” she said.

Sci on the Fly logo



“If there’s a topic that you have interest in and want to put together a podcast, we can help you do it,” said Richard Ames, a fellow who volunteered to produce the podcast.

Everyone has something to offer, Linas said, whether it is utilizing their connections to find experts to interview or asking engaging questions. Ames, an engineer who is completing a one-year fellowship at the Department of Defense, has a dual career composing and producing music for film and television. He brought those two worlds together for the first time with his work on “Sci on the Fly,” he said.

Once he receives the script and the raw audio from the episode’s owner, Ames cuts the audio and aligns sound levels and addresses other technical production issues. Ames stressed that the episode’s owner does the bulk of the work, saying “It’s all about the content.” Still, he handles a multitude of small details like removing stray “ums” and “ahs” from questions and answers. “That way you’re not wasting the listener’s time with all that extra stuff in there,” Ames added.

While creating a podcast is more work than drafting a blog post, Linas said “I think it’s rewarding.”

The fellows have been supported along the way by AAAS and the S&T Policy Fellowships program.

The program staff is “really open to [fellows] having new ideas and helping them work through those ideas and bring it to light,” Linas said. AAAS has continued to support the project after its launch, too, providing an online home for the podcast and working to add it to the iTunes store.

“I’m really thankful that I have people who are interested – my co-fellows and AAAS – supporting it,” she said.

Ames echoed that sentiment. “It was great to work with the other fellows in producing a concrete program that’s related to the S&T Policy realm,” he added.

“Welcoming more than one hundred new fellows each September, the program reaps huge benefits by the constant influx of ideas and deep scientific and engineering know-how. We’re pleased to welcome this new vehicle for communicating about the intersection of science and policy," said Cynthia Robinson, the director of STPF.

Linas has learned a lot throughout the first few months of “Sci on the Fly,” she said, and not just about the mechanics of making a podcast. How to communicate science in ways that are welcoming to listeners, particularly to non-scientists who are interested in the topic science has been an important lesson. A major strength of “Sci on the Fly,” is that even as the podcast tackles technical discussions, they still speak to non-scientists. “We have people who can tell great stories,” she said.

Several future podcast episodes are already in the works, including a follow-up to their exploration of the Zika virus, and episodes on genetically modified organisms and food waste.

GMOs have prompted controversy, and traditional media outlets have extensively covered the debate. The fellows intend to instead play to their strength: providing fact-based information about what science says about GMOs, Linas said.

“We’re not trying to engage in a debate; we’re just trying to put information out there,” she said. “We want to use science as our guiding principle.”

In the future, Linas is hopeful the fellows will continue to contribute to the podcast even after their fellowships draw to a close – after all, the digital work of creating a podcast can be done anywhere.

On the production side, “I’ll continue to be involved for as long as they’d like me to be,” Ames said.

Linas, whose fellowship concludes next year, would like to stay involved in the podcast in some capacity as an alumna, but she also wants to foster new talent from the incoming class of fellows who begin their terms next month. “I want it to be something that’s sustainable,” Linas said.

[Associated image: Haslam Digital/Flickr CC BY 2.0]