Engagement is good. Engagement w/ training is better.

I’m a science communication professional. It’s taken some time for me to admit that, not because I’m ashamed of it, but because to many, it precludes me from also being a scientist. That’s simply not the case ( for an eloquent argument, see here). I still have the mind of the scientist, still think like one, and am still consulted on scientific issues by non-scientists. In D.C. especially, I’m the scientist. But, with this acceptance of my role as a communicator (or actually communication trainer) comes the knowledge that I’m good as talking to people, and better at training people on how to talk.

My primary job is training scientists how to talk to non-scientists. Giving a talk to a community group? I can help. Being interviewed by a journalist for a manuscript that just came out? Give me a call. Meeting with a policymaker? Good luck. Talk to someone who does this for a living first. And that’s my point.

Recently there’s been an increased call for scientists to get engaged – with the public, with the media, and (especially?) with policymakers (e.g. some great pieces by Terry McGlynn & Catharine Young).  I could not agree more; however, even though I see more and more “calls to action” I don’t see a corresponding increase of “learn how to talk to these audiences” first. That worries me.

Now, here’s the part where I say that scientists, by definition, are not bad communicators. It is a stereotype that has been hoisted upon us that some have embraced and some have kicked. It is true, though, that a large portion of academic institutions do not provide communications training to their students. It’s like teaching – it’s a largely learn-by-doing endeavor. And this approach works for many. That’s how I initially learned and now I teach it. But, for those who are trying to figure out where to start, who to reach out to, how to initiate conversations, how to craft your message, how to reduce jargon, etc., there are places to go and people to talk to.

Institutional support: First and foremost, check out the resources that might be available at your institution. Some universities such as UW Madison and NCSU have entire programs devoted to scicomm and engagement. However, you don’t need to attend an institution with entire programs devoted to engagement to receive support. All institutions have government and public affairs offices (they may go by different names such as congressional, legislative, press, news, etc.). Government affairs offices are responsible for connecting institutional goings-on with policymakers. Public affairs offices are responsible for getting things out to the press. Even if these offices don’t offer formal support through programs or workshops, they are always willing to help folks who are interested in sharing their research with broader audiences.

Along those lines, find scientists at your institution who are doing this type of work already and chat them up. Even if they’re in a different field/department/school/etc., scientists who are already engaging with diverse audiences almost always want to help others to do the same.

Sharing ScienceThis is going to seem like self-promotion, and maybe it is, but it’s also incredibly useful. The Sharing Science program at the American Geophysical Union is designed to provide scientists with the tools and skills that they need to share their science with anyone. If you’re an AGU member and are interested in communication, policy, and/or outreach, let us be a resource for you. We have a network of AGU members who share ideals associated with engagement and put on workshops (you can request one here), webinars (open to anyone), networking events, and other activities to help promote science sharing beyond research circles. If you’re not an AGU member, we still have a ton of resources freely available on our website. Giving a talk to a community group? Being interviewed by a journalist for a manuscript that just came out? Meeting with a policymaker? We can help with all that and more.

COMPASS: COMPASS is an organization solely devoted to helping scientists connect with broader audiences to promote scientific understanding. They offer workshops, one-on-one training, short courses, and can provide connections to an audience of your choosing.

AAAS: AAAS’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology is (largely) an analogous program to Sharing Science in that it’s missions is Providing scientists and scientific institutions with the resources they need to have meaningful conversations with the public. In addition to  workshops and webinars, their Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science works with scientists who have shown interest in and demonstrated the ability to engage with broad audiences.

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science: Alan Alda (yes, this Alan Alda) helped create an entire center at Stony Brook University dedicated to helping scientists communicate their message. They run workshops, short courses, and classes about using improv in communication.

The Story Collider: The Story Collider brings true, personal stories about science to the masses. Everyone has a science story, from the heartbreaking to the uplifting, from serious to hilarious. I’m a co-host and producer of our D.C. branch but we also offer science storytelling workshops across the country and around the world. Storytelling is a crucial part of communicating and The Story Collider is devoted to humanizing science through telling stories.


If there was ever a time to engage, it’s now. So go out there and do it, but remember, communicating science is a lot like conducting science – it requires training. There are numerous resources out there. Use them!

 

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