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.