Nature: “Stand up for science”

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Moran
    January 7, 2011

    My approach is 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 answer exactly the same way.”

    I don’t distinguish between the answers I give when I’m thinking and behaving as a scientist and the answers I give when I’m a citizen. I may explain things differently when I’m talking to scientists or when I’m talking to non-scientists but the answers are the same.

  2. #2 gillt
    January 7, 2011

    I think this post has a mixed message. On the one hand as scientists we’re told by Chris Mooney and Nancy Baron and Josh Rosenau that it’s okay not to wear a public science communicating hat if we don’t hear that particular calling, but Stephen Schneider says that choosing not to communicate science is actually unethical “passing the buck”. Later on we’re told that the best science being done is by collaboration (a platitude) with the implication that you’re not realizing your full potential unless you can communicate science to non-scientists.

    As a scientist what am I supposed to take away from this post?

  3. #3 Can Not Say
    January 7, 2011

    Discussing facts available in open records can be hazardous to one’s scientific career. Truth is too much for some.

  4. #4 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2011

    gilit:

    I think this post has a mixed message. On the one hand as scientists we’re told by Chris Mooney and Nancy Baron and Josh Rosenau that it’s okay not to wear a public science communicating hat if we don’t hear that particular calling, but Stephen Schneider says that choosing not to communicate science is actually unethical “passing the buck”.

    From what I can tell, Schneider did not say that outright that “[s]taying out of the fray” was necessarily unethical, but rather that staying out of it was not more ethical than getting involved. There may very well be good reasons to pass the buck, e.g., one is uncharismatic or a dull writer, but one should have no illusions that the buck is being passed. Somebody needs to do science communication.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2011

    Sorry, that should be, “one should have no illusions that the buck is not being passed.”

  6. #6 David Marjanović
    January 8, 2011
    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.

    Very different changes to the academic system would help.

    Currently, professional scientists are paid for teaching and for increasing their impact factor. They are not paid for spending time on anything else, such as public outreach or even writing textbooks. (Textbooks are usually written by people who are more than halfway through their careers, can afford the time for writing them, and can expect a market share that will allow them to at least break even.)

    I repeat: professional scientists are currently paid for not “wasting” time on public outreach.

    Change that, and watch scientists fall over themselves to explain everything they know to everyone who doesn’t run away fast enough. Also, I want a pony and single-payer health insurance for everyone who lives in the USA.

    Currently, advisors who do what the quote suggests punish themselves and their students.

    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.

    Sadly, these two facts are not mutually exclusive. There is such a thing as a lose-lose situation; this is one and will stay one as long as scientists aren’t compensated for public outreach.

    I don’t distinguish between the answers I give when I’m thinking and behaving as a scientist and the answers I give when I’m a citizen. I may explain things differently when I’m talking to scientists or when I’m talking to non-scientists but the answers are the same.

    Seconded.

    I mean, are there suddenly two different realities?

  7. #7 Mark
    January 8, 2011

    Scientists are public contractors. They’re paid by the taxpayers to study something and publish their findings in scientific journals, and that’s what they should be doing.

    No one gives a damn about their opinions about anything but the topic they’re paid to study, and the forum that they are paid to issue their opinions is the scientific literature, not press releases, etc.

    Corruption and blatant misrepresentation of evidence to secure funding and fame are endemic in science– the global warming fraud is the most obvious example.

    Note to scientists: you’re wasting your time with this ‘communicating’ crap. Most of you are are just semi-educated narcissists with very limited skills.

    Shut up and work. When you reach a conclusion, publish it in the scientific literature.

    Otherwise, nobody gives a damn what you think.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    January 8, 2011

    Mark: People should care what scientists think, because scientists have expertise. And those scientists who are on federal grants (which is not every scientist) also have an obligation to do work on the broader impacts of their research. It’s part of their grant, and a grant that doesn’t describe how that outreach will be done cannot get NSF funds. NSF grants carry an onus to in the specialist literature, of course, but also to explain those results and their implications to the public who funded the work.

    This is nothing at all to do with misrepresentation, let alone corruption. And it’s ignorant and obtuse to suggest otherwise. The first example in the article, and in my post, is of an ecologist who went on Colbert to talk about a paper she published in Science. It’s exactly what you’re describing: Scientists talking to the public about their research findings. What’s your problem?

  9. #9 gillt
    January 9, 2011

    From what I can tell, Schneider did not say that outright that “[s]taying out of the fray” was necessarily unethical, but rather that staying out of it was not more ethical than getting involved.

    As I said, I was referring to Josh’s post, not Stephen Schneider’s original quote. For the sake of argument, not taking the high ground implies that you’re doing something unethical, does it not? It’s a contentious remark that may be taken out of context…I don’t know. By the way, do you have the full passage instead of just the snippet Josh uses?

    To second David, I certainly don’t get paid or encouraged, nor do any of the grad students or post-docs in the lab and institute I work at, to promote science communication to the public. Ask a med student on rotation how much free time they have for volunteer work and you’ll get an idea. I’d say to make any headway on this matter fundamental changes are in order.

    What little I do, uncompensated freelance writing for the institute’s newsletter, is publicly available on the website. That’s the extent of it. Sure there are paneled talks on the topic that offer next to no practical advice on how to start a career in science communication. Then there is the AAAS fellowship being offered for science policy and communication but only if you already have a PhD, a requirement that is more than a little absurd.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    January 9, 2011

    gilit: “not taking the high ground implies that you’re doing something unethical”

    Not necessarily. There are things that are ethical that are supposed to be strongly morally good, and things that are ethical but just okay or average rather than great. Taking the high road implies being strongly morally good, but not taking it can simply mean doing what is just okay rather than what is outright wrong.

  11. #11 gillt
    January 9, 2011

    Again, in combination with “passing the buck”–attributing another with responsibility for your actions–the reasonable interpretation is unethical behavior on the part of scientists who don’t do their part communicating to the rest of the public, which makes this post confused.

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    January 9, 2011

    gilit, it really isn’t that confusing. What should you take away from the post? Simple: While not everyone has the inclination for science communication, those who do should be encouraged to do so, rather than having institutional obstacles (e.g., the attitude that not communicating with the public is taking the high road) get in their way.

  13. #13 gillt
    January 9, 2011

    Refer to comment 4 because there is clearly more than one message expressed in this post.

  14. #14 Drivebyposter
    January 10, 2011

    Mark:

    Instead of posting comments, how about you do a study and find out how many people share your opinion. Then get it published in a peer reviewed journal instead of posting it here. No one gives a crap what you have to say if it’s not in a journal, you poorly educated narcissistic prick.

  15. #15 Adam_Y
    January 12, 2011

    Scientists are public contractors. They’re paid by the taxpayers to study something and publish their findings in scientific journals, and that’s what they should be doing.

    Actually according to the federal grant proposals that gives us money its a part of our job. Deal with it you smug jackass.

  16. #16 yogi-one
    January 15, 2011

    It makes a huge difference. Scientists that are good communicators, if they get support, funding, and exposure can make a huge difference in public opinion. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and others, and of course legendary figures like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Einstein have had a profound effect on public opinion on science and public policy matters.

    If there are more scientists committed to this kind of communicating, then you don’t need world-famous clout to get the message across. You’ll have numbers, which is better than being dependent on a single super-star.

    Otherwise you leave it in the hands of the corporations, the politicians, the pseudo-science scammers, and the religious right to define the public’s views on scienice matters.

    There’s no high ground. There’s a fight for public attention on matters where the science is crucial – climate change, nuclear energy, solar energy, electric cars, nuclear weapons, space exploration, particle physics, astro-physics, evolution, and on and on.

    If you don’t get in the fray and put forth your truth, you lose. There’s no high ground. You can’t refuse to play. By doing nothing, the other side wins and gets all the public support. You lose – you get zero funding, nada, zip, defeat. That’s your “high ground”.

    If you are doing something worthwhile, it’s worth getting out there and standing up for. Otherwise, maybe you are wasting the public’s money. If you’re not, we’ll never know because you didn’t get out there and let us know.

    I’m telling you. I’m not a scientist. I’m a member of the lay public who happens to respect science and try to pay some attention to good science.

    I’m appalled at the state of knowledge of most of my friends. The churches, the tea-partiers, and the denialists tell them what to think and they are grossly uniformed, and it’s damn harmful for the country.

    Where the hell are the scientists?

    Think about it.

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