Tag Archives: communication

Grad students: share your science!

SCIENCE, OK!? From https://www.ratbotcomics.com/comics/pgrc_2014/1/1.html

SCIENCE, OK!? From https://www.ratbotcomics.com/comics/pgrc_2014/1/1.html

In the current political climate, it can sometimes be disheartening to be a scientist or a scientist in training. The process of science and scientifically derived facts are too often devalued or denied, despite decades of painstaking, objective work produced by a community of scholars. Countering this “climate of denial” will take steady work by scientists and all those who value truth, reason, and societal progress. How can we get started to address this when the challenge seems so daunting? One productive approach: beginning early in one’s scientific career, scientists in training should get very comfortable with communicating their research! And not just in the traditional sense – as in peer-reviewed papers or conference presentations. We have to communicate our work In engaging ways for diverse audiences. Reaching outside of this echo chamber will be key to demonstrating the value of our science to society. This is especially true in fields like conservation, but also applies to nearly every area of research (e.g. health, engineering, political science, and more!).

Don't be like this guy. From https://www.nature.com/scitable/ebooks/english-communication-for-scientists-14053993/communicating-as-a-scientist-14238273

Don’t be like this guy. From https://www.nature.com/scitable/ebooks/english-communication-for-scientists-14053993/communicating-as-a-scientist-14238273

Here are a few  non-traditional outlets that graduate students can use to communicate their research and make their science matter. And remember to explain so that your grandmother can understand.

SciComm 101: What can you do yourself? 

Share science on social media

Starting a twitter account is a great place to start to share your science (and the work of others), access the latest research, and exchange ideas. In my experience, social media brings everyone – from undergraduates to emeritus professors – to the same level because the currency of exchange is clear ideas.

Why scholars use Twitter. From Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711

Why scholars use Twitter. From Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711

Translate your research for non-specialist audiences

The combination of paywalls,and researchers’ hyperspecialization means that the vast majority of scientific papers are only read by a few specialists in the field. To make sure that your science is accessed by literally anyone else, you have to translate it! Translation in this case means making your research – especially the findings, conclusions, and societal implications – very easy to understand. The challenge with translation is balancing accuracy with clarity. You don’t need all of that jargon and those acronyms to explain your work clearly. Translation of research findings can take many forms, including blog posts, videos, an outreach event with a local school or senior center, or even a children’s book. Your outlet will depend on your goals – are you interested in educating the public? Targeting decision makers? Starting a conversation across disciplinary lines? The translation approach can be tailored accordingly.

Yes, robots. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/244953667201990101/

Yes, robots. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/244953667201990101/

Next level SciComm: what can you do with the help of others?

Involve non-traditional stakeholders in your research

As you develop your research questions and methods, partner with practitioners or knowledge users like non-governmental or governmental organizations. This relationship can be mutually beneficial; the partner can help provide a research direction while your analyses can provide information that the partner can use directly. In addition, such a partner may also help to share research findings within their community of practice.

Write and disseminate a press release

When you have a publication in the final stages of review and revision, work with your university public relations office to develop a press release. Their expertise will help you to hone the language and also pitch it to their journalist contacts. They may also help you to prepare for an interview.

Talk to journalists

If journalists contact you for an interview – great! Respond as soon as possible and respect their deadlines. You may ask for the questions beforehand, which they may or may not have time to provide. Prepare by writing down a few talking points, considering these questions about your research: What is new? Why do the findings matter? What should be done about it? Note that these are very applied questions; journalists will almost never ask about your methods or p-values but instead will focus on what the results mean and why people should care. During the interview, answer questions clearly and accurately. If the journalist asks a misleading question or tries to put words in your mouth (“Would you say that….the planet is dying and we are doomed?”), refocus the conversation by starting with a fresh sentence relevant to your work (“Our research shows that the application of [whatever] can be very harmful to [your target species]. By reducing our use of [whatever], we can ensure that [your target species] remains abundant and continues to provide important [food sources/recreation opportunities/tourism value/genetic diversity/etc]”).

Sometimes your ideas can be twisted. State your ideas as accurately and clearly as possible. http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive_print.php?comicid=1174

Sometimes your ideas can be twisted. State your ideas as accurately and clearly as possible. http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive_print.php?comicid=1174

Make #SciComm the norm

In the traditional graduate school curriculum, students do not receive training in any of these outreach and communication approaches. My advice is to try these approaches one at a time and remember that practice makes perfect. Although this may take you out of your comfort zone, it is so critical to share your science and demonstrate its value to society.

Happy Earth Month!


On “island hopping” and emphasizing the unknown in science communication


This year’s final plenary at the AAAS Meeting in DC featured Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Abumrad served up sage advice and challenged the status quo model of science communication. 

How does the communication of science to the mainstream public work today? First, scientists do their science and then (eventually) publish a paper featuring new results in a scientific journal. If the paper is published in a top-tier journal and/or has broad implications for the public, it may receive some press coverage and reach the eyes of non-scientists. The results will have been translated by the journalist writing the piece in an attempt to make the jargon more accessible. As Abumrad nicely stated, journalists writing about science have to “hop” between “islands” or various linguistic spheres. Each scientific field and subfield has its own island featuring unique terminology. The ability to “island hop,” Abumrad argues, should not be restricted to journalists. Each scientist should be to talk “across the table” and explain his or her research to any non-expert. Metaphors, anthropomorphism, and relatable terminology are the most helpful tools here. For instance, Abumrad featured research describing different genes which regulate processes in the cell. Instead of using the technical acronyms for the genes, Abumrad gave them whimsical names (the “grim reaper” and “fountain of youth” genes) based on their functions. He also paired these names with memorable gene “voices” to anthropomorphize them and make them relatable for the audience. Any scientist can use this example and work to “island hop” – translating the results of their own research in a creative way.

After describing “island hopping,” Abumrad offered a provocative suggestion to scientists: instead of emphasizing results and “what we know,” focus on the unknown. This way, the public will become more interested in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and science as a process of discovery. This emphasis may also drive the public to support funding for science and the consideration of science in policy. However, there are several challenges inherent in this suggestion. First of all, it is the antithesis of the status quo. Scientists publish a paper presenting new results and focus on “what is known” now as a result of the research. This process occurs within a context of the scientific culture; competition for publications in top journals, large federal grants, and other milestones incentivize scientists to attempt to stand out from the crowd. How to stand out? By presenting the newest and most cutting edge results in academic journals which speak primarily to scientific peers. News coverage and outreach to the public is often seen as secondary (read: less important) communication. The system incentives a results-driven approach. Abumrad’s suggestion that scientists emphasize more of the questions and unknowns directly challenges this model.

Although the suggestion to emphasize unknowns may draw in new and curious audiences, there are several possible drawbacks. First, a shift in this direction may provide an unfortunate inlay for science deniers and skeptics to intervene in the discourse. We already see this today: as climate scientists rightfully communicate that models contain elements of uncertainty (which more precisely means that there are large confidence intervals in the results rather than blatant unknowns), deniers snatch this up and argue that the models and science are useless. The over-emphasis of questions and gaps in science (on climate change, evolution, or any controversial topic) allows a clear opportunity for deniers to reach a broader audience and incite doubt. In addition, a focus on unknowns may leave the public feeling unsatisfied by the lack of clear and packaged results, ultimately eroding the public’s excitement for science. Finally, an effort to emphasize questions and unknowns would be especially challenging for younger and less established scientists. Thriving in the competitive scientific environment requires that young scientists abide by the established conventions as they compete in the job market.

Given the challenges inherent in altering the status quo model of science communication, I would suggest that a healthy balance between the presentation of scientific results and the questions that these results generate offers the best way forward. It is up to both journalists and scientists to ask the right questions and provide a fair proportion of both novel results and exciting questions. This way, science may be appreciated for what it is –  a process of discovery – rather than simply a large body of facts.