News: AAAS 2009 Annual Meeting News
Making your Point: Tips for Effective Science Communication
CHICAGO--You're nervous. You ask yourself: "What was I thinking?"
Why did you volunteer to be interviewed by the local newspaper? How can you explain your laboratory's super-complex protein folding research? You can barely explain your research to your physics-major friends without them checking their watch.
To help scientists feel more comfortable communicating their research to the public, AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a full-day workshop at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, which brought more than 100 scientists and 40 public information officers from around the country to a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
Sponsored by NSF, the workshop offered specific communication tips for scientists including how to develop a core message, avoid jargon, use analogies to explain complex concepts, and define an audience. The workshop also explored how science communication fits into their research goals.
Tiffany Lohwater, public engagement manager at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, said that communication skills are not only important for interviews with reporters, but also for scientists working with students, interacting with policymakers, giving public talks, and writing articles for the general public.
"The workshop encourages scientists to consider how they can
better communicate to a non-scientific audience," said Lohwater. "These
activities allow them to practice those skills that they might use in an
interview or public talk and get constructive feedback from colleagues."
Lohwater will also cover science communication during a talk entitled
"Equipping Our Scientists to Better Communicate Their Science to the Public" as
part of the Celebrating Year of Science 2009 symposium from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on
Friday 13 February, in the Columbus Hall EF of the Hyatt Regency.
Workshop facilitator Denise Graveline said that one of the most common missteps scientists make when talking with the public is not developing their core message--and instead delving into too much detail or explaining too many concepts at once.
Graveline suggested that scientists distill their research into a few main points, even going so far as to tell the audience the number of core concepts. "When you tell an audience that you have three critical concepts, they will actually count in their head and listen for those specific points," said Graveline, who is president of the Washington, D.C.-based communication firm don't get caught.
During a breakout session for scientists, Carrie Brubaker, a biomechanical engineering graduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago, volunteered to explain her research to the other participants. After getting feedback from Graveline and other participants, Brubaker improved her presentation and explained how her research on the adhesive quality of mussel proteins could be used to treat Type I diabetes.
In a joint presentation, Susan Mason and Dana Topousis, both of the NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, said that public information officers are increasingly called upon to fill the void of science communication created by cuts in science reporting in newsrooms around the country.
Citing the elimination of the CNN science desk and severe cutbacks at U.S. World News Report, Mason and Topousis said that press offices are looking toward direct collaborations between research institutions and media outlets. For example, NSF has formal collaborations with Discover magazine and LiveScience.com; it's also developing multimedia content for the Discovery Files podcast, a weekly 90-second radio news feature that airs nationally on about 1500 commercial radio stations.
"Research institutions themselves are now tasked with translating science to the public in new ways," said Mason.
In addition to communication workshops, the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting features a host of other career and professional development workshops for scientists at all career stages, including transitioning from academia to industry jobs, improving your science writing, getting published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, and running for local political office.
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