This week’s Nature has a great report on efforts to get scientists more active in policy discussions. It starts with an ecologist who got some media training, which gave her the courage to go on the Colbert Report and defend a paper she co-authored about the dangers of mountaintop removal. From there, we get a survey of recent attacks on science, and efforts to push back.
Nancy Baron quotes the late and lamented Stephen Schneider, “Staying out of the fray is not taking the ‘high ground’; it is just passing the buck,” and she adds this useful trick for dealing with the boundary between science and other disciplines. His approach was to say: “If you are asking me as a scientist, I would answer it this way … If you are asking me as a citizen, I would say …”
And she repeats a point that I often make in my talks, and a point Chris Mooney has been hammering over the years:
Not every scientist wants to step up to the microphone — nor do they all need to. But for those who aim to change the world — and many graduate students and postdocs do — some changes to the academic system would help. If young scientists are going to hone communication skills, they need the support of senior scientists to protect their interests and reputations at crucial junctures in their careers. In choosing an adviser, they should align themselves with scientists who have solid credentials and who share their values about outreach. Increasingly, many senior scientists are developing communication courses for their students that range from one-day workshops to accredited courses.
There’s more that’s needed, but this is a start. A good graduate advisor is important, but then you need to find a post-doctoral advisor who is also supportive, and then a tenure-track opening at a program with a communications-friendly faculty. Then you need to hope your tenure committee consists of outreach-sympathizers.
The small bore change Baron mentions here is not enough to shift the culture of academic science. Changes in funding, both in terms of making more funding available for outreach specifically, and in terms of having good metrics for outreach so that scientists can show they are having an impact, are badly needed.
That concern aside, I want to tattoo this closing passage on the forehead of every graduate advisor in the nation:
In my work with scientists, I often hear that they cannot afford the time to work on their communication skills, with their hectic, research, publishing and teaching schedules. I see it another way: they cannot afford not to.
Many of the most prolific and accomplished scientists have risen to the top of their field by conducting significant, relevant research and working out how to communicate it within their discipline and beyond. They know the value of being quizzed by Congress or the media, even if at times it can be uncomfortable. Going public forces them to distil the essence of their work and to think harder about the questions — what is known and what is left to discover. [Dalhousie University ecologist Boris] Worm’s philosophy is that engaging with thoughtful criticism — even if it seems harsh in the media spotlight — “makes everyone think more deeply and makes us push harder against the limits of the unknown”.
That’s why sharpening communication skills has value beyond increasing public understanding. It can breach interdisciplinary boundaries within science and help colleagues with different viewpoints catch a glimpse of a bigger picture. Articulating vision and common goals has long been a cornerstone of leadership on the battlefield. Scientists would be wise to adopt a similar strategy. Being a good communicator is not a trade-off. It makes you a better scientist.
This is exactly right, and it’s an element that I don’t think gets enough attention. The very best research being done today is interdisciplinary and synthetic, but to become the very best researcher, you have to be increasingly specialized in your field. When the best research has to be done by teams with quite different backgrounds, communicating science clearly to non-scientists is just as important, and just as hard, for ecologists trying to explain their work to a physicist collaborator as it is when those ecologists are trying to convince Colbert to care about the environment.