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Monday, April 4, 2011

Scientists or Communicators

Recently I’ve come across a debate about whether scientists should try communicating directly to the public, or whether they should focus on getting their research to the press and letting them communicate it to the public. Full disclosure here, I come down on the latter side of the argument because a good bit of my job revolves around being a liaison between scientists and the press. But for reasons other than employment security, I think that scientists communicating directly with the public isn’t always the best idea.

This is not a one-size-fits-all discussion though. There are  a number of scientists who are natural communicators, and in that case they should be encouraged in the strongest terms possible to communicate away. The less that science is distorted by translating it from person to person, the better. The problem arises when we are faced with the reality that the majority of scientists are not natural communicators.

There are a number of workshops and programs to teach scientists communication skills, here is a story about one I attended in February. But there is a difference between being trained in something, and actually being good at it. Though virtually everyone engages in a great deal of communication every day, few of us are actually good at it, even fewer when the communication in question is written.

This is where a communications professional, like myself, or a journalist comes in. We spend every day thinking about how to communicate these issues to the public, so in theory we are pretty good at it. Scientists can have a tendency to almost regurgitate their findings, and they are so immersed in their worlds that they have a hard time knowing the right level to communicate to the general public at.

I recently watched an NSF video of Alan Alda talking about what he learned getting scientists to communicate during his time hosting the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. I love the part towards the end when he is talking about his efforts to drag scientists back into conversations when they drift into lecture mode. Having someone who is skilled in communication can be key in getting scientists to effectively tell their story.

Also, I believe pretty strongly that having that filter can be necessary when communicating science. Most Americans are generally in favor of science and technology when they first hear about it. The problem arises when this newly learned scientific knowledge comes into contact with other beliefs. For example, when you look at support for stem cell research, it breaks pretty cleanly along religious lines because the debate has been framed that way.

I’m not optimistic enough to think that communications professionals will always be smart enough to frame science news so that it doesn’t fall into the culture wars, as stem cell research has. But someone who spends every day thinking about communication will have a better chance to anticipate those stumbling blocks, than will someone who spends every day thinking about a way to cure cancer.

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