"Lessons from Science Communication Training" is the title of a letter appearing in the May 25th issue of Science magazine [Lessons from Science Communication Training].
The letter is from a group at Cornell University who developed a science communication course for graduate students. According to the letter,
... the goal of this course was to improve our ability to discuss our research with both the general public and the professionals writing and reporting on science in the media.The authors have three key recommendations that I'll discuss below but before getting to them let's set the stage.
Matt Nisbet recommends the article on his blog [At Science, a Focus on Media Training for Scientists]. I assume he endorses the message because it fits with his idea of framing science. Chad Orzel is a little bit skeptical but he accepts the principles laid out in the Science letter [Framing Science: Look Inside the Sausage Factory].
What is the problem that the Cornell group is trying to solve? Here's how they put it,
However, a cultural shift is under way, reflecting the higher stakes of research, and an increased recognition by scientists, stakeholders, and policymakers that (i) scientists need to get their message out, (ii) scientists need training to learn how to do so, and (iii) training should begin at the graduate level.Now, I don't want to be accused of claiming that all scientists are excellent communicators but as far as I can tell they don't do such a bad job. After all, communicating is extremely important in science whether it be writing a scientific paper or lecturing to undergraduates. It's not at all clear to me that we scientists are doing such a bad job of communicating science.
But we all know that's not really the issue. The issue is the fixation of some people on the idea that scientists need special training in order to communicate to the general public. Apparently the skills needed to communicate within the scientific community are just not good enough when it comes to writing popular science. But is this true? Do scientists really fall down when it comes to communicating to non-scientists?
I don't think so. I have several selves full of books by scientists. You may be familiar with some of the names: Richard Dawkins, Ken Miller, Carl Sagan, Ernst Mayr, Ed Wilson, Jim Watson, Francis Crick, Jared Diamond, George Williams, John Maynard Smith, Lynn Margulis, David Raup, Niles Eldredge, David Suzuki, Richard Lewontin, and Stephen Jay Gould. Many of these scientists have also written newspaper articles and reviews in the New York Times. They've been interviewed on television and they've given public lectures all over the world.
Not bad for scientists, eh? Of course not every scientist can be good at this but that's surely not the point. The important point is whether there's a serious problem when it comes to scientists communicating with the general public. Frankly, I don't see it. The scientists are communicating science very effectively. Maybe some people aren't listening, or maybe some people don't understand science when they hear it.
I think the so-called "problem" here is not about communicating good science. It's about using science language as a tool to persuade people to change their minds. This is what Nisbet and Mooney are on about. They don't really care about the science, they take that as a given. What they want is for scientists to move out of the science sphere into the political sphere. They want scientists to adopt their particular political perspective and fight on their side for the policy changes that they believe in. They don't really want scientists to explain stem cell research. Scientists have already done a good job at that. Nisbet and Mooney want scientists to fight against the pro-life people who would shut down stem cell research. That's not science communication. It's politics. Perhaps you need framing in politics but it's wrong in science.
Let's, for the sake of argument, agree that scientists can do better at communicating science (not politics) to the general public. Who's going to teach them? If you were being logical you might assume that the best teachers would be scientists with a proven track record, like the ones mentioned above. Or perhaps another group of lesser luminaries who have some experience with the media.
Well, if that's what you think you then haven't been listening to the conversations. Did you know there's a large group of people out there who think that scientists need lessons from science journalists, reporters, and people in the press office? Apparently these guys have been doing a much better job than the scientists when it comes to communicating science to the general public. I guess they're better framers. Who knew?
Back to the original letter in Science. Here are the three bits of advice that the Cornell group teaches.
First, involve people from multiple fields across your college or university. In particular, we highly recommend involving staff from the press relations office. These specialists have a unique perspective on what topics are newsworthy and on the challenges scientists face in communicating effectively. Include scientists who have personal experience communicating their research to the public and journalists from your campus or local newspaper.I like the idea of getting advice from scientists who have personal experience. I'm very skeptical about advice from the staff of press relations offices. My experience with the results coming out of those offices does not inspire confidence. I'm not sure that scientists should be taking lessons on how to communicate to the general public from a group that doesn't seem to be very good at it. I think that press relations offices are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Second, visit a news room (radio, print, or television) and talk to reporters--not just science reporters, but reporters in all fields. Ask to sit in on a meeting where reporters and editors pitch stories to each other. This process reveals what stories interest reporters and how those stories are developed. Understanding this process will help scientists identify and explain the newsworthy attributes of their own research.What evidence do we have that a group of reporters sitting around a table is able to distinguish good science from bad science? None whatsoever [SCIENCE Questions: Asking the Right Question]. Clearly the goal here is not to focus on good science communication—it's how to spin good science to conform to what the newspapers want to print. We know what that is. Shave your head, commit a crime, exaggerate your claims. Is this really what we want our graduate students to learn?
The group that needs lessons here is the reporters, not the scientists. That ain't gonna happen but it's no reason for us to lower ourselves to their standards.
Third, get hands-on experience communicating science as part of the class. Do not just set up a series of lectures and field trips: write press releases, write articles, conduct interviews, get interviewed, create a Web page, and set up a science blog. Ask your collaborating journalists and PR specialists to facilitate and critique student projects. Hands-on experience with feedback from media professionals and other students provided some of the most useful learning experiences in our course.Experience is important. Nobody questions that. The important question is who is going to be the judge of good science writing? If it's going to be journalists, PR specialists, and media professionals then I want to see evidence that they are doing a good job right now. Are they worthy of trust?