The Time Has Come for Researchers to Step Up and Make a Case for Themselves in the Larger World

The scientific community has historically taken a dim view of communications with nonscientific publics.

No thanks, said scientists. What an imposition! Why bother? What good could possibly come from interrupting research, sticking our necks out and dumbing it down for non-scientific dunderheads, only to see them mismanage our findings?

And when scientists did journey forth, their purpose was perfunctory, their communications couched in obtuse, technical jargon. They spoke of discrete probabilities and processes, a disconnect from the concerns of the man on the street. The intent of scientific communication was to inform, to transmit knowledge, lecture-like from on high—to feed the beast, as it were.

It’s a new ball game now. A convergence of recent developments appears to be inexorably pushing the scientific community toward a communication tipping point, a sea change that challenges scientists to step up and proactively engage their restive publics. The idea that social ills could be cured if people only had more knowledge—the decades-old deficit model that drove scientific outreach— has been discredited.

The entirety of the scientific enterprise is more exposed, at greater risk. Science is in the ring with controversial social issues and taking more punches. Important publics are agitating for transparency. Funding is dicey. The media ecosystem is in flux. What scientists say, and how they say it, is more important than ever. But the scientific community, by and large, is communicatively challenged— variously untrained and unskilled, inept, timid, and preoccupied—and often disinclined to deal with it all.

Researchers and other scientists are increasingly tasked to engage a variety of external publics. When federal funding began in the 1950s, research was perceived as generally benign. Today, important scientific, medical and engineering issues such as stem cells, climate research, nanotechnology and genomics are contentious and politically charged. Dialogues and policy formation involving scientific data are susceptible to being compromised by competing special interests, misinformation and poor public scientific literacy. The funding stream, besides leading to state and national seats of political power, also takes researchers before other critical publics—donors, nonscientific administrators and potential collaborators.

Do researchers make a good case for themselves in the real world?

Scientists and engineers “tend to communicate poorly” because “their professions have not valued explanation,” said science communication consultant Dennis Meredith in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Their “career advancement doesn’t depend on having lay-level explanatory skills,” leaving scientists “strategically maladroit” when they engage external publics.

Meredith is among the new breed of communicators hacking out routes for scientists to follow. Matthew Nesbit and Dietram Scheufele recently helped show scientists the way toward framing—using metaphors and narratives to make communications more relevant to specific audiences—a major improvement over the dissemination of dry scientific data that had previously passed for outreach.

Framing sometimes came across as manipulating or “selling” science. But at the very least, it encouraged science communicators to begin thinking about the wants and needs of external publics and was a major step toward the concept of engagement, the communication modality that builds trust.

Most commonly, bench scientists and others err in their communications by using overly technical language—“dense scientese,” says Meredith—that loses lay audiences. When research leaves the lab, it must be repackaged and repurposed. “Your department chair might understand what’s going on in your lab, but your institution’s trustees, president, vice presidents and provost might not.” Successfully engaging external publics requires researchers to master a more conversational style of scientific discourse, in their own voice.

Another frequent fault is failing to distill the essence of the message into a handful of talking points beforehand. Communicators should also study empirical data about target audience values—the cognitive filters in any public’s decision-making process.

In a study of science communicators who self-identified as experts, authored by John Besley from the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, bench scientists were found to receive little communication training.

Only one in five communication experts reported conducting communication training of bench scientists. When training did occur, the primary focus was most often on communication theories and models, followed by (in descending order) news values and norms, public speaking and presentations, engagement, being interviewed by the media, and writing for the media and other publics.

Compared to other science-related survey groups, the study reported that bench scientists are “the most likely to hold a deficit model perspective, the least likely to think the public have meaningful opinions, and the most likely to be out of touch with the public.”

Lab managers who find public engagement challenging won’t lack company; most scientists would seem ill prepared, since the majority are proceeding without benefit of adequate formal training and/or role models.

Recognizing the need for a more muscular communication system in its relations with key external audiences, the scientific community is creating pipelines to nurture talent, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Public Engagement With Science and Technology and the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry Ambassadors program. Educators are also filling the void; one leading effort empowering scientific communication is the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University. Geared toward academic environmental scientists, the two-week seminar program has trained more than 150 Fellows since 1998. Organizations are also stepping up to provide resources: the Union of Concerned Scientists produced a guide for talking to reporters.

Since many researchers are reluctant to venture beyond their laboratory comfort zone, advocates of greater public engagement are campaigning to persuade the profession it’s a scientific duty that benefits the public good by promoting informed debate.

Other proponents maintain that outreach also serves the best self-interest of scientists, contrary to what some in the profession believe.

“There are studies that show a correlation between visibility of research and research funding,” says Carol Rogers, a University of Maryland journalism lecturer. Communications that target legislators are a proven means of moving the federal funding levers supporting agencies such as NIH and NSF and can also improve funding atmospherics for other researchers.

Furthermore, says Meredith, good communication skills can generate scientific citations, as evidenced by a New England Journal of Medicine study of citations earned by scientists whose outreach efforts attracted media coverage. Meredith says the scientific culture’s utter aversion to publicity is neutralized by the heated interplay between science and society; he shakes off criticisms of researchers as publicity hounds as “vague grumblings” from those whose “research is not significant enough,” provided the communications are judicious.

Taking one’s research beyond the confines of a scientific journal once meant getting play in print media such as newspapers and periodicals. The contraction of that industry has reduced its outlets, so science, which was always a lesser topic, has been further marginalized. A 2008 Project for Excellence in Journalism report pegged the science news hole at two percent, while consumer-driven issues such as health and medicine warrant seven percent.

Despite this diminishment and the march of social media, it is traditional media, primarily print, that remains the gatekeeper for science news; the official print version becomes the basis for subsequent media use. Science always had an uneasy relationship with traditional media. Science is process driven and deals in uncertainties and probabilities. Media prefers all things novel and concrete and thrives on controversy, which can result in the systematic overweighting of dissenters. As reporters relentlessly work issues for fresh angles, members of the scientific community are “sometimes treated as if they were just another special interest in the messy political food fight” wrote Christine Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

The good news is that consumers have a healthy appetite for scientific information. A 2010 NSF report showed that 40 percent of Americans get science information from TV, 28 percent from the Internet and 22 percent from print media. It’s not an either-or proposition; audiences, says Pew Research, blend these sources.

New media technologies, the drivers of future public understanding of science, afford lab managers a host of communication opportunities by opening up digital platforms to better engage a range of external publics.

The future has already arrived for scientists who have taken to the blogosphere. Leader ScienceBlogs. com, “the largest online community dedicated to science,” reports it has exceeded double-digit traffic growth every year since its 2006 launching, taking up the slack left by traditional media’s shrinkage. The conversational nature of blogs helps researchers learn how publics perceive the convergence of science and society, an understanding that improves the quality of engagement and promotes trust.

Blogs, websites, webinars, social media, podcasts, wikis, videos, e-newsletters—they all work, say Scheufele and Meredith, who urge scientists to use the full range of communication tools at their disposal, in order to reach all audiences. Many scientists rely on a single communication mode. Others refrain because outreach appears too time-consuming; Meredith touts a communication “strategy of synergy,” using the same document in multiple modalities.

Old and new media overlap; Nature’s survey of 500 science journalists revealed that most have used a science blog for story ideas, an opportunity for lab managers’ digital content to become mainstreamed. The magazine editorially encouraged more “realistic writing about the experience of bench scientists,” imploring them to “rise up and reach out” and “penetrate the news cycle.”

In today’s wide-open “publicize or perish” media environment, it’s often advisable for lab managers to consult public information officers and media departments of scientific organizations and agencies. By going public directly, scientists preempt intermediaries who can distort their data and rivals who stand to gain from first-mover advantage; proactively going on record with their research provides lab managers’ reputations with a measure of protection against subsequent misrepresentations and attacks.

The plethora of new communication technology platforms is mind-boggling: Meredith’s website—ExplainingResearch. com—includes more than 50 Twitter sites and resources.

Social media is not without its traps. One common problem is jumping in with both feet, the “let’s just do some social media” mistake. Another worry is the self-injurious “Facebook effect,” supported by research into cognition and electronic communications showing how people are inclined to go over the top. Excessive and/or unprofessional personal musings can affect tenure and promotion. Many senior professors fail to see how social media improves research skills.

But scientific social media users maintain it produces better engagement. Even with their 140-character limit, the users say informal tweets are better than formal papers for providing publics with a true picture of a day in the life of a lab manager—the concept of “informational justice” that is essential if scientists are to achieve communicative engagement with external audiences.