Tag Archives: communication

How to put your science into action: tips for graduate students and academics

From Union of Concerned Scientists, https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/through-the-looking-glass-climate-change-denial-conflict-of-interest-and-connecting-science-to-policy-297

From Union of Concerned Scientists, https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/through-the-looking-glass-climate-change-denial-conflict-of-interest-and-connecting-science-to-policy-297

As a scientist, I am frustrated. Attacks on scientific institutions, the existence of scientifically supported phenomena, and objective reality itself are rampant and seem to be gaining power. Reading about the emergence of the “Flat Earth” movement was the low point of 2017 for me in terms of taking stock on humanity’s intellectual progress. Fringe groups aside, the consideration of science in decision making, once considered commonplace, is increasingly questioned. From those who deny climate change, insist on a “balanced” teaching of evolution, or refuse to vaccinate their children, the distortion or undermining of science seems to be everywhere. Is there a silver lining to all of this? The current administration’s anti-science rhetoric and policies have fueled new movements like the March for Science, 500 Women Scientists, and others. And this frustration makes me (and maybe you?) want to do something about it.

No need to include "evidence-based," really. T-shirt from https://www.redbubble.com/people/fabianb/works/25271562-what-do-we-want-evidence-based-science-when-do-we-want-it-after-peer-review?p=womens-fitted-scoop

No need to include “evidence-based,” really. T-shirt from https://www.redbubble.com/people/fabianb/works/25271562-what-do-we-want-evidence-based-science-when-do-we-want-it-after-peer-review?p=womens-fitted-scoop

How can scientists, especially graduate students, have a meaningful voice in science-relevant decision making? Can we be good stewards of science – including that of our work and others’ – to make a difference? I hope so, and I believe that we must seek opportunities to infuse and integrate our work into decision making processes. However, this will not happen automatically: we must be prepared, work strategically, partner with the right institutions, and communicate effectively. Here are some concrete steps graduate students and early career researchers can take to work toward these goals.

Seek help

Making a difference is hard and you’ll need help. Throughout graduate training, find free resources to prepare you with the science-policy/communication/engagement skills that we don’t normally learn in the classroom. Here are some great resources for science-policy communication, advocacy, and opportunities to connect with mentors. Conferences also often have science-policy sessions or workshops that can provide additional training – for example, I’ve participated in workshops on social media from AGU and visual media and presentation skills from National Geographic.

The message box from COMPASS is a great resource to help craft your message. COMPASS offers workshops and training materials online and at conferences: https://www.compassscicomm.org/how-we-can-help-you

The message box from COMPASS is a great resource to help craft your message. COMPASS offers workshops and training materials online and at conferences: https://www.compassscicomm.org/how-we-can-help-you

Know the landscape

Recognize that the science and policy cultures are completely different. Scientists and policy makers ask different questions, operate on different time scales, use different jargon, and even dress differently. This great slide from Melanie Roberts (AAAS) sums it up perfectly:

sci pol

Recognize that these are real barriers that may prevent decision makers from considering, accessing, understanding, or possibly valuing scientific input. Keeping these in mind will help to “bridge the gap” throughout the engagement process if, for instance, you’re writing a press release about your research or meeting directly with a decision maker. To make sure that your message resonates, you’ll need to translate the quantitative and technical to a more qualitative and narrative-form message. Meet your audience where they are. 

Power-mapping is a tool can help prepare you before meetings with specific decision makers. This helped me and my team at the American Institute for Biological Sciences Congressional Visits Day – we pitched our “ask” (to increase funding for the National Science Foundation) to specific representatives in terms of benefits to their state and constituents. Focusing on the number of people, dollars, and jobs that NSF provides in a given district or state was key to reaching the target audience.


Seek out opportunities to collaborate outside of your academic institution and work with those who are interested in using your work to make a difference. These may include colleagues in government or non-governmental organizations. Collaboration can occur during many stages of a project, from conceptualization to data collection and analysis, to publication, and dissemination. As a researcher, it is critical to make sure that your science and its message is not diluted by those who would have a vested interest in its distortion; be wary of and avoid such collaborations (or funding sources). Despite this caveat, it can be extremely valuable to collaborate with such “boundary organizations” – institutions which both produce and translate knowledge for decision makers. For instance, colleagues in my department collaborate with scientists at Smithsonian, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NASA who provide study design advice, technical expertise, and funding. I am collaborating with Conservation International, which has provided valuable resources including expertise, access to savvy and well-connected media staff, and connections with a network of experts who are integrated with national and international institutions. Collaborations like this can also help you achieve the next goal: publishing!

Publish (open access, if you can)

This is an obvious one, but unpublished dissertations are read only by a committee (and perhaps devoted friends and family) and then collect dust on a shelf. Publishing gives your work legitimacy and permanence and acts as a springboard for broader dissemination. Most decision makers or journalists won’t consider or cover your work unless it has been published in a credible peer-reviewed journal. Seek out opportunities and funds to publish your work in an open access format so that it can be read and used by anyone. Open access fees may be prohibitive, but some universities (like Mason) have funds to support this and journals may waive fees if requested. If you can’t publish open access, at least share the full text of your work with colleagues, on listservs, and upon request. Not only may your work be valuable as a stand-alone manuscript, but also it can be used by non-governmental organizations (who often do not have journal access) as part of literature or issue reviews.

How has open access publishing helped me? As a fellow at Oceana, I completed a literature review of seafood mislabeling and fraud worldwide and was thankful that some of the articles were open access! I was able to extract information quickly and efficiently without waiting on responses from authors for full texts of articles.

Open Access Explained! From PhD Comics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY 


Publication of your research in a scientific journal is not enough to change the world. Decision makers do not have the time or the journal subscriptions to access your work, nor the ability to translate findings in a way that resonates personally. You must translate your work to make it useful; translation can come in several forms. Before your paper is published, prepare communication and outreach materials, like a press release or briefing that can be shared with journalists and decision makers. You can work with your university public relations/communications office to refine this and leverage the skills and networks of collaborators to disseminate it. When translating your message, use the “flipped triangle” model: start with the headline and follow with the “why should I care” message. Fill in the details later.

Translate your science for public consumption by flipping the message. From climatechangecommunication.org

Translate your science for public consumption by flipping the message. From climatechangecommunication.org

If you want your work to be used in decision making, or simply consumed by a non-scientific audience, you can’t just do outreach to your peers via scientific conferences and publications. For instance, if your goal is to influence a particular policy decision, you’ll need to target your communication efforts to key stakeholders, including decision makers and those who have access to decision makers. If you can, allocate time and funding to do this in your research plan and budget.

Take advantage of policy windows

Is your research relevant to a policy or process that is currently being developed or deliberated – like the listing of a species or the establishment of a new protected area? You can position your work strategically to try to influence these decisions. You may want to leverage partnerships you’ve formed or find new ones to identify policy windows and contacts with whom you can share your work.

One way to do this is to pitch your work in a press release during a particular political event that serves as the “hook.” For instance, my work on regulatory rollbacks to protected areas influenced the tagline that the reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments were the largest in U.S. history (technically, Bears Ears alone was the single largest downsize). I’ve also timed the publication of my research to align with key events; my article on boundary changes in Yosemite National Park was published on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. This provided a hook that enabled us to get media coverage in Vice, Mongabay, and other outlets. Not all publications and presentations will necessarily line up perfectly with policy windows; this is one of the main barriers to the integration of science and decision making. However, if you are lucky to have such opportunities, seize them.

On whether scientists should scientists engage in policy

There is a spectrum of opinions on the question of whether scientists should bother engaging in policy and decision making; opinions vary by field. Conservation biology for instance, was founded as a mission-oriented discipline – we do our science in order to prevent extinctions and preserve life on earth. This has shaped my opinion that scientists must engageeither in our communities, in the public sphere, and/or with decision makers. We are experts that can provide valuable, high-quality information that can influence important decisions and make a difference in the world. It is understandable that not everyone is interested in all aspects of science-policy engagement, such as direct advocacy. It can be nerve wracking and uncomfortable to meet with decision makers and ask for something. However, I believe that all scientists can play a role along a spectrum, from pure knowledge providers to direct advocates on specific issues. A remaining question, however: are there incentives in academia to encourage science-policy and communications work? Usually, tenure and promotion models do not often reward time spent on these activities, which is unfortunate. This is one reason why I am personally seeking careers outside of academia with the goal of integrating scientific knowledge into decision making.

The March for Science galvanized scientists around the world to speak up for truth. Image from CNN http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/22/health/global-march-for-science/index.html

The March for Science galvanized scientists around the world to speak up for truth. Image from CNN http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/22/health/global-march-for-science/index.html

On speaking truth to power

Scientists are stereotyped as nerdy and shy – uncomfortable with speaking truth to power directly. Translating and communicating your research to new and possibly unfriendly audiences may be difficult, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. If you stick to the science and draw conclusions that follow from your results, you will be fine. Be clear, direct, and the best steward of your science: if you don’t do it, who will?

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.