As I am still getting lengthy comments at the Chris Mooney post accusing me of making unreasonable demands on scientists, I thought I should spell out as explicitly as possible what skills I think scientists ought to have. This probably won’t solve the problem, but it’ll give me something to point to the next time I get asked.

So, what communications skills should scientists have? The answer depends on what kind of science you’re going to do, and what you want to do with it.

First and foremost, though: If you want to be a successful scientist, you need good communications skills. Full stop. There is no way out of this– if you want to be a successful scientist with your own research group, you will need to be an effective communicator. The vast majority of this communication will be with other scientists in your field or closely related fields, but if you’re planning to go into science because you think you won’t have to deal with people, think again.

To be a successful scientist, you will need to be an effective writer. Not just because your results will eventually be reported in a journal article, but because you will need to write research grants to get the money you need to get publishable results in the first place. If you can’t string together three coherent sentences, you are going to be in trouble.

To be a successful scientist, you will need to be an effective public speaker. At some point, you are going to need to be able to stand up in front of a group of other scientists and explain what you did, and answer questions about your work. If you would rather be locked into a safe with a thousand spiders than give a speech in public, you are in the wrong line of work.

You might be able to make a career for yourself as a technician in somebody else’s research group without these skills, but if your career goal is to be a principal investigator, you will need to be able to write, and you will need to be able to speak in public to an audience of other scientists. If you’re still a student, and you’re not good at these things, do whatever you need to do to become good at them. Every college and university in America has some sort of writing center to provide tutoring and writing advice– seek them out, and do what they tell you. Almost every college has classes and seminars in which you can learn to make presentations to other people– seek them out, and practice giving talks until public speaking doesn’t scare you any more.

If your field of research is likely to be controversial with elements of the general public, you ought to know how to talk to the general public. If you’re not sure whether your research will be controversial, here’s a simple test: Look at the introduction and conclusion to your last successful research grant. If they mention follow-on technologies that might be considered transformative (genetically engineered superpowers, flying cars, giant lasers in space), then it will be controversial with the general public.

If your research is in such a field, it’s in your best interests to know how to talk to the general public, because you will most likely have to talk to them at some point. When your big result gets written up in Science or Nature, you’ll get calls from the press asking for comments, and you should be able to talk about it in a way that won’t spark outrage.

This is not as ironclad and inescapable a requirement as the first one. Most colleges and universities have press offices that will handle the writing of public news releases, and you can push a lot of the communications burden onto them. If the project involves students or post-doc with better communications skills than you have, you can put them out front, with the caveat that they will get more press than you. If you want to be the one on camera talking about the exciting new results from your lab, though, and explaining how This Changes Everything, it is in your best interests to know how people who aren’t in your field of research think and how to talk to them in a way that doesn’t make you look arrogant and insensitive.

If you want to contribute to the making of public policy, you absolutely must know how to talk to the general public. This seems like it ought to be too obvious to list, but apparently it isn’t. If your goal as a scientist and a citizen is to shape public policies, you need to understand the public.

If you want to help set the future course of energy research, or climate change mitigation, or genetic technologies, or any such activity, you need to know how to talk to people who aren’t scientists. The reason for this is very simple: non-scientists outnumber scientists by a very large margin, and their votes count the same as yours. If you want future public policy to develop in accordance with your scientific views, you will need to convince a majority of the public to support those actions.

Science alone will not get this done. You need to understand how people feel, and what will connect your science to their interests. Even if their concerns and interests seem silly to you, you need to have the minimum of common decency required to listen to their opinions and respond to them in a way that at least appears to address their chief concerns.

This is important enough to deserve multiple forms of emphasis, so: IF YOU CAN’T ACT LIKE YOU CARE ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS, STAY OUT OF PUBLIC POLICY. Seriously. You’re just going to mess everything up for the rest of us.

Please note that this section of advice applies to a tiny minority of working scientists. If your goal in life is to understand symmetry breaking in grand unified theories of physics, you will most likely not require any knowledge of the general public or ability to talk to people who don’t share your interests. You can be as contemptuous as you like of public opinion, and it won’t matter. If your only goal in life is to be a bench scientist, you can most likely avoid ever needing to concern yourself with public opinion research. Just keep your head down when the subject of politics comes up, and you’ll be fine.

But if you’re going to try to influence public policy on energy, the environment, genetic engineering, space travel, cancer research, or any of bunch of other areas, you need the skills of a politician in addition to the skills of a scientist. And that includes the ability to listen to rambling and incoherent expressions of concern about something that doesn’t make a great deal of sense without making faces or calling the speaker an idiot.

(Are there times when “You’re a loony” is the only appropriate response? Yes, but not nearly as many of them as you think. The vast majority of the time, you need to think of a way to turn a nonsensical rant into a sensible question, and answer that question.)

This is the subset of scientists that Chris Mooney’s talking about and to in his paper and op-ed regarding the workshops held by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They are specifically talking about science as it impacts public policy, and what scientists and scientific organizations ought to be doing.

This is the area where social-science research becomes critically important to the business of science. And note that they do not suggest that every individual scientist become an expert in public communication, just that those scientists who are involved in public policy should learn from social-science research. This is where institutions are important– government agencies like the Department of Energy or the Department of the Interior should be reading social-science research on public attitudes, and commissioning it where needed. Professional societies like the APS, ACS, AAAS (any of the several organizations with that acronym) and so on should be doing the same, and making the results available to their members to aid those who are interested in the work of shaping public policy.

Finally, another category that seems too obvious to have to mention, but isn’t: If you intend to be a public communicator of science, you need to know how to talk to the general public. If your goal is to be the next Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, you need to learn how to talk to the general public. You need to know something about what they know, something about what they care about, and how to talk to them without talking down to them.

Writing a science-oriented blog is not enough, here. Blog readership is self-selecting, and you can easily accumulate a substantial readership in blog terms without having any idea how to talk to the vast majority of the population who don’t read blogs. If you doubt this, read some of the science posts on science blogs that aren’t in your field. Notice how a lot of them don’t make sense without a lot of background information that you don’t have? Now think about how this appears to someone who majored in English in college.

If you want to learn how to communicate with the general public, you need practice. Write some stuff for the general public, and have it edited by somebody who doesn’t know anything about science. It’s eye-opening.

And here, again, you need to learn how to deal with nonsensical concerns and complaints without being a dick about it. There are some great clips out there of Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about the importance of science and scientific thinking, and pointing out nonsensical beliefs (I like this one), but if you watch a few of these, you’ll notice one thing he doesn’t do (except in very rare cases): he doesn’t directly mock the people who ask him questions about things that make no sense. It’s almost never “You’re a loony,” it’s “Here’s the information you need to understand why some other person is a loony or a fraud.” There’s an art to it, and he’s a master.

Again, this group is a tiny, tiny minority of scientists. Not every scientist needs to be a public communicator of science, and not every scientist should be. But if you’re going to be in an area of science that requires you to interact with the general public, you have an obligation to learn the best ways of talking to the general public.

Is that asking a lot of those scientists? Yes. But then they’re also asking a lot from science and society, so it’s entirely reasonable. With great publicity comes great responsibility, and all that.

If that strikes you as too much work, there are lots of areas of science in which you can make a perfectly good living without needing to worry about public communication. But if you want to do public policy, there are skills you need to have in order to make a positive contribution.

Comments

  1. #1 John Novak
    July 6, 2010

    Please note that this section of advice applies to a tiny minority of working scientists. If your goal in life is to understand symmetry breaking in grand unified theories of physics, you will most likely not require any knowledge of the general public or ability to talk to people who don’t share your interests.

    Unless it costs a tenth of your nation’s GDP to build the experimental facility required to test your theories, in which case, yeah.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    July 6, 2010

    John — well, if you’re going to be the PI, or one of the public-facing members of the (gigantic) team that needs that kind of experimental facility, then, yeah, you need to know how to talk to the public. But in particle physics experiments, the groups are huge enough that they can absorb antisocial scientists of all sorts– including the “technicians” that Chad mentions, who don’t even want to talk to other scientists. As long as they can talk to others in their sub-subgroup who are then able to communicate with the rest of the larger group and the broader scientific community, they’re OK.

    If your group is huge, you can specialize more. You need *some* people who can talk to the public, and you have to respect them.

    If your group is smaller, then you need communication skills at least to communicate with the community of your field.

  3. #3 Neil B
    July 6, 2010

    Just off the top of my head:

    Read the works of others carefully before offering criticism. Understand what they’re really saying. Remember that illustrative metaphors can be misleading. Note that punchlines can be ironic, might not reflect your original impressions, might not be simple reflections of where you think the writer is going. If the target’s work is unpolished, confusing, unfinished, inadequate font or graphical support etc. – let it go or just refer others to make up their own mind. It might be revised anyway. Snark can incite irritation at an otherwise more innocuous point. Let the target know he or she is/will be critiqued.

    Of course, writers of pieces should make critics’ jobs easier by avoiding the above shortcomings, as well as snark and other grit.

  4. #4 Gaythia
    July 6, 2010

    I think that this is a great post on why good communication skills are important for scientists and what communication skills are needed.

    In order to take this conversation to the next level, I think that it is necessary to listen to the scientists who objected to portions of Chris’ paper and hear their concerns. It makes quite a bit of difference whether or not the research a given scientist is conducting is or isn’t seen by the public as a contentious issue. Also, I think one’s perspective would be quite different if one were employed in academia with or without tenure, in government or in industry.

    Science is conducted within the context of the larger society, which is probably more politically divided, and certainly more economically divided, than previously.

    Just as when dealing with other segments of the public, you can’t be convincing about the need for change without understanding the constraints various scientists face or see themselves facing.

  5. #5 Estraven
    July 6, 2010

    If you can’t write well, can’t speak well, and can’t explain why people should care about what research you do, you can still become a VERY successful mathematician. You don’t need to refuse refusing a million dollar prize either.

  6. #6 Paul
    July 6, 2010

    I wonder to what extent good writers, public speakers and communicators are being promoted in science in place of good thinkers – people who can challenge prevailing dogma, invent promising novel approaches to old problems, and who have the intuition needed for deducing correct theories from just a few observations.

  7. #7 Janne
    July 6, 2010

    “If you want to be a successful scientist, you need good communications skills.”

    I’ll amend it to: If you want to be a successful anything, you need good communications skills.

    There’s very few jobs other than some physical labour ones that doesn’t require good communication skills in some for or another. Even if your day job is shoveling cow manure you’ll need good, if somewhat specialized, communication skills in order to not get kicked by your animals.

    That said:

    “If your field of research is likely to be controversial with elements of the general public, you ought to know how to talk to the general public.”

    I’ll amend it to: “If your field of work is likely to be controversial with elements of the general public, somebody in your group ought to know how to talk to the general public.”

    This is not just science. Lots of areas of work are controversial. If you’re a policeman, your work is frequently controversial. If you work in the oil industry – in any capacity – you’re in the middle of a controversy right now in your country. Fishermen and farmers, the drug and health-care industry, banking and financial services – the list is endless.

    But in most fields, people aren’t all expected to speak for their field. Nobody expects a BP middle-manager or somewhere to speak publicly about the oil spill, or an individual trader to take the floor to defend a bank bailout. The individual policeman assigned to a case doesn’t talk about it with the public. All these fields have dedicated people for public contact. People who are good at it, and like doing it and make a profession out of it.

    The only exception seems to be science, where every jobbing researcher is expected to be able to act as an effective PR representative for their field. We don’t require it of any other field out there, so why do we do so for scientists?

    We need effective public communicators. But that is not the same as requiring _everyone_ to be an effective public communicator.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    July 6, 2010

    There’s very few jobs other than some physical labour ones that doesn’t require good communication skills in some for or another. Even if your day job is shoveling cow manure you’ll need good, if somewhat specialized, communication skills in order to not get kicked by your animals.

    That’s true, but for some reason, science has this reputation of being a place where you don’t need communications skills. This probably has to do with the well-documented tendency of the scientifically inclined to be socially awkward, but an amazing number of students seem to think it’s generally true, and are shocked when we expect them to give in-class oral presentations and that sort of thing.

    It’s a common enough myth that it’s worth contradicting directly.

    I’ll amend it to: “If your field of work is likely to be controversial with elements of the general public, somebody in your group ought to know how to talk to the general public.”

    True. The advantage of doing it yourself is that you know the person who can talk to the public will always be around, and won’t graduate or take a faculty position at a different university.

    The only exception seems to be science, where every jobbing researcher is expected to be able to act as an effective PR representative for their field. We don’t require it of any other field out there, so why do we do so for scientists?

    It’s a side effect of so much of science being done within academia. It’s not just scientists who are expected to be independent operators, it’s everyone in academia– faculty in the humanities and social sciences need to be their own PR operations as well. We talk about the problems in science more often because this is ScienceBlogs, but everyone in academia is in the same position.

    There are limited exceptions to this, mostly in the world of large collaborative science– the LHC, the Human Genome Project, etc. In those cases, a small number of people do all the talking for the entire collaboration. the core model of academia, though, has every scholar as an independent actor, and thus responsible for his or her own PR.

    We need effective public communicators. But that is not the same as requiring _everyone_ to be an effective public communicator.

    Again, I am not saying that every scientist needs to be an effective public communicator– just those who are going to be communicating with the public as part of their jobs. There are lots of fields of science you can go into if you don’t want to ever have to talk to the media. If you want to be in the limelight, though, you need to develop the skills required to do a good job of it, or recognize that you can’t and delegate the public communication to someone else.

  9. #9 Janne
    July 6, 2010

    You know, I had a seminar with my then university’s PR group as a graduate student – my bet is, every decent sized university has one – and their main complaint with researchers is that they don’t come to them, and don’t use the PR expertise the university already has. That was the reason for the seminar, to present the PR group and tell us what they can do for us. They felt they were being underutilized, and too much good research was being badly represented by the researchers, or not presented publicly at all.

    I wonder how many researchers out there have even once considered contacting their PR department for advice on public outreach, or even a simple thing like drafting a press release?

  10. #10 Hamish Johnston
    July 7, 2010

    If you are interested in boosting your communication skills using “new media”, you might want to check out this online lecture by Dennis Meredith, science research writer and consultant.

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/go/webinar12

    Hamish

  11. #11 ponderingfool
    July 7, 2010

    If you want to be in the limelight, though, you need to develop the skills required to do a good job of it, or recognize that you can’t and delegate the public communication to someone else.
    ********************************
    Are you suggesting if you are working on stem cells you need to delve into learning to speak with the public? Or those who work on stem cells and want to be part of the debate? The latter I can get behind. The former not so much. In areas such as stem cells, I want the best research being done. Communicating that research to the the larger publics should be done by someone who has the time and resources to truly understand the various publics they are addressing. That is a full time job. Our current system though doesn’t pay for someone to have that job.

    What I find when watching scientists on TV is not that they call people idiots, it is that they are too nice for the sparing that goes on with what has become TV news. Yes many times they resort to countering emotion with facts but usually it comes across that they are trying actively to be overly nice. Don’t call parents of autistic children idiots but don’t let them get away with statements that measles are a nothing disease for example. Attack that idea with a passionate vigor as you point out the real threat of measles vs the misguided fear of vaccines causing autism.

    Also, in this discussion of communicating science, shouldn’t we be talking about increasing diversity? The US is becoming less white male dominated (as it should). Probably help in communicating science if the scientific community better reflected our society.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    July 7, 2010

    Are you suggesting if you are working on stem cells you need to delve into learning to speak with the public? Or those who work on stem cells and want to be part of the debate? The latter I can get behind.

    Absolutely the latter. I would say that the former ought to learn about public concerns and so on. In 2010, it’s not exactly a surprise that stem cells are somewhat controversial, so nobody going into that field should be under any illusions about the public status of their future work.

  13. #13 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2010

    If anyone wants publicity for their research, they need to have at least a basic grounding for speaking to the press/public, it is not simply enough to let a university’s PR person “handle” it entirely. Reporters almost always want to talk directly with the researcher to get the full story and to better understand the research. There will always be more questions even following the best written press release. The researcher needs to be able talk to the reporter the same way they would talk to the public, because essentially the reporters is acting as a conduit to the public. This means answering all the questions fully, keeping the jargon to a minimum, and understanding that the public, and yes usually the reporter, doesn’t hold a PhD in this specific field.

    A common complaint among researchers about PR departments is that their research is misrepresented or sensationalized. Though every PR department operates differently, this is an argument for researchers to be even better communicators, and take an active role in shaping your message yourself. The more clearly you write or speak, and more active a role you take in preparing material for the press, the less misinterpretation and misrepresentation there will be. What better person to explain to the world what the important parts of your research than you the researcher.

    I feel that any scientist who refuses to even attempt to communicate with or engage the public in a meaningful way, then bemoans the public’s or the media’s “lack of respect for science” is a hypocrite in the worst degree. It is always better to light a single candle than to forever curse the darkness.

  14. #14 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2010

    If anyone wants publicity for their research, they need to have at least a basic grounding for speaking to the press/public, it is not simply enough to let a university’s PR person “handle” it entirely. Reporters almost always want to talk directly with the researcher to get the full story and to better understand the research. There will always be more questions even following the best written press release. The researcher needs to be able talk to the reporter the same way they would talk to the public, because essentially the reporters is acting as a conduit to the public. This means answering all the questions fully, keeping the jargon to a minimum, and understanding that the public, and yes usually the reporter, doesn’t hold a PhD in this specific field.

    A common complaint among researchers about PR departments is that their research is misrepresented or sensationalized. Though every PR department operates differently, this is an argument for researchers to be even better communicators, and take an active role in shaping your message yourself. The more clearly you write or speak, and more active a role you take in preparing material for the press, the less misinterpretation and misrepresentation there will be. What better person to explain to the world what the important parts of your research than you the researcher.

    I feel that any scientist who refuses to even attempt to communicate with or engage the public in a meaningful way, then bemoans the public’s or the media’s “lack of respect for science” is a hypocrite in the worst degree. It is always better to light a single candle than to forever curse the darkness.

  15. #15 vagueofgodalming
    July 7, 2010

    To be a successful scientist, you will need to be an effective writer. Not just because your results will eventually be reported in a journal article, but because you will need to write research grants to get the money you need to get publishable results in the first place.

    This always puzzles me. I’m not a scientist, or even an academic, so I don’t have to write research grant proposals. But I do have to write proposals for the technical company I work for, and they require all the black arts that people so despise when they are recommended by Chris Mooney or, FSM forbid, Matthew Nisbet.

    What happens in the academic world? Do grant funders come to expect dreary recitations of all the reasons research probably won’t answer anything, roll their eyes and move on? Do scientist pull out all the stops in communicating, and then go shower, sighing with relief that they won’t have to do that again for a few weeks? Or do they write what they would like, and then close their eyes while an older, more cynical colleague spreads the pixie-dust (“this experiment will help us understand the conditions in which life got its start”) on the proposal, and pretend that this never happened?

    It just seems like a disconnect to me – isn’t communicating with the public one long solicitation for support? Or am I just completely misunderstanding the academic environment?

  16. #16 yogi-one
    July 8, 2010

    ponderingfool@11 Communicating that research to the the larger publics should be done by someone who has the time and resources to truly understand the various publics they are addressing. That is a full time job. Our current system though doesn’t pay for someone to have that job.

    Voila! There you have it.

    And that hits at why the scientific community gets its ass kicked by the political community time after time. They have think tanks, PR machines and an army of zealots who are hired to represent industry, or a certain political group, or a religious faction, or some citizens group whose express aim is to deny the science and take out the scientists that are doing research that goes against their beliefs, political position, or profit motives.

    They aren’t in it to argue the merits of the research. They are in it to politically eliminate people who might stand in the way of their political goals.

    Until the scientific community gets an organized machine of its own, that can march into a congressional committee, get access to the White house, and get memes across in the MSM, you will always be on the defensive.

    Well, that’s not science, you may say. You’re right, it’s not science. So you can actually hire a bunch of non-scientists to do a lot of this work for you.

    It’s not science. It’s stinking, rotten politics. Ugh. How un-sciencey can it get? Not much more, for sure.

    But the scientific community’s ass is getting kicked day in and day out because because, with the exception of a few individual superstars, you don’t address that problem.

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