Science communication is everywhere; gone are the days where scientists could remain solely in the ivory tower.
Contributor Susan Gelman
Listening in on a panel of highly accomplished science writers, I was hoping to hear some golden words of wisdom that would somehow crack open the secret doors to science communication. One of the problems is that science communication can be nebulous and many PhD and post-doctoral fellows are left unsure how to parlay research training into a communication career. It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no magic answer and science communication remains as vague as ever. But luckily the lack of definition is a disguised benefit, which allows for a great deal of flexibility in the field.
Scientific American senior editor Seth Fletcher moderated the panel. Panelists included Wade Roush (acting director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship), Alyson Kenward (research director at Climate Central), Don Monroe (freelance science and tech writer), and Beth Halford (senior editor at Chemical Engineering News). The panelists touched on options in communication such as technical writing, writing for a science audience, writing for the general public, and opportunities for working on infographics and videos. Yet despite the many possibilities classified under science communication, Kenward was careful to draw distinctions. “All science journalism is communication, but not all communication is journalism.” She elaborated by explaining that ethics are the heart of journalism, and all writing must be done from a neutral standpoint. On the other hand, communications such as press releases and announcements are often promotional.
The several scientists-turned-writers stressed that when it comes to writing, understanding the topic isn’t quite enough. After a question from the audience on how to write about polarizing topics, Monroe stressed that journalists must be careful not to appear overtly biased. “Fundamentally science is about continuing to question, so if we present ourselves as advocates for one point of view, then we become anti scientific as well.”
What the panel, and the Expo in its entirety, emphasized is that we’re past the point of thinking that academia or industry is the only way to move forward with a research degree. We are aware that there are a number of rewarding options available, so now it’s time to begin figuring out how to get ourselves there. The path explored by the panel was to get as much writing experience as possible, and most importantly, learning how to write well.
When asked about what sorts of skills hopeful science communicators might need to succeed, Monroe explained the importance of being mindful of audience interests. Sometimes readers won’t want all the little details. The key, he said, is “knowing what you really need to know.” Other advice included learning how to use an active voice and forgoing the temptation of all scientists to speak cautiously and use caveat words. Fletcher commented that when evaluating writers, he looks for clips that demonstrate a strong understanding of the material and are able to convey a point of view.
And for those who are not looking to leave the bench, communication remains critical. Roush noted he has found that the ability to clearly explain complex topics is a valuable asset for all researchers. “The most successful scientists are the guys and women who actually enjoy talking about their work and can explain it to anybody,” he said. “They know how to get their stuff across and why it’s cool or important.”
So the main takeaway? Science communication is everywhere; gone are the days where scientists could remain solely in the ivory tower. Thus regardless of our audience we need to be able to communicate and do it well. And while there is no one ideal route for getting started in science communication, learning how to concisely and correctly convey our passions is a solid place to start.