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!).
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.
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.
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]”).
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!