Efforts to encourage better public outreach are admirable, but better communication between scientists must come first, says David Rubenson.
Growing concerns about public scientific awareness have motivated efforts to train scientists in public speaking. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is perhaps the best known programme in the US. It has been joined by more, like the AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and others from major foundations. The goal is to improve the general public’s awareness of scientific issues and their importance in daily life. Unfortunately, though, these kinds of efforts have limited potential.
Poor public outreach is a by-product of communication problems within science itself. Most scientist-to-scientist talks consist of mountains of incomprehensible slides, delivered at lightening speeds, with fonts too small to read and abbreviations known only to the speaker. If experts cannot communicate with colleagues using familiar formats, then they certainly can’t communicate with the public in lay language. Teach scientists to communicate with each other first, and public speaking will follow.
More specifically, there are two reasons why policymakers should address scientist-to-scientist communication before encouraging public outreach:
1) Better scientific communication offers greater potential to engage scientists, and
2) Better scientific communication is a prerequisite for effective public outreach.
The greater potential to engage scientists
Engaging scientists in any type of communication training is a daunting challenge. They are under intense pressure to meet quantitative metrics: papers published, talks delivered, grants obtained. Why take time to prepare an excellent scientific talk when several bad ones look better on a CV? And, similarly, why take the time to improve public speaking skills?
Many research scientists enjoy all types of speaking and constantly strive to improve skills. However interest in formal communication training programmes to engage the general public normally come from policymakers, social scientists, foundations, and more — not from research scientists themselves. They have, however, shown some interest in improving scientist-to-scientist communication. Many see problems in colleagues’ presentations, if not in their own. Many are aware of wasted time in seminars. Some institutions offer occasional classes in scientific presentation techniques.
Scientist-to-scientist communication training offers direct benefits for research and to researchers, as opposed to the indirect benefits offered by teaching public engagement. It would help speakers move away from the “data dumps” that characterize too many scientific talks and encourage them to develop coherent narratives that stimulate audiences.
Most importantly, it would facilitate the multi-disciplinary collaborations needed for breakthrough science. Science is hyper-specialized but most scientific audiences contain researchers from diverse sub-disciplines. A primary motivation to speak at a scientific conference, or give a seminar, is to encourage new collaborations. Life scientists increasingly need to collaborate with engineers, physical scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others. Unfortunately, the typical reliance on narrow sub-discipline vocabulary works against making multi-disciplinary connections. Accessible talks would facilitate them; an immediate benefit to speakers and the audience.
There are also career incentives. There is a close connection between written and oral communication, and scientist-to-scientist communication training would help scientists write compelling grant applications. Most scientists need to speak effectively with department heads, scientific administrators, and industry executives at various points in their careers.
If properly articulated, the benefits of scientist-to-scientist communication training can capture the attention of even the busiest researchers.
Scientist-to-scientist communication training is a prerequisite to effective public engagement
My scientist-to-scientist communication training classes generally consist of 10-15 scientists in partially related fields. An initial exercise is for each student to give a short oral overview (no slides), using language the entire group can understand. They usually fail, falling back on specialized vocabulary that’s familiar to the speaker and impossible for everyone else.
By posing questions and forcing the speaker to explain their concepts, talks gradually become comprehensible. A key factor is fellow students who know just enough to ask clarifying questions, even if they don’t initially understand the speaker’s content.
The key training challenge is helping scientists tell their “story” clearly and concisely. It starts with learning to tell that story to close colleagues, extending that skill to less-close colleagues, and eventually to the full continuum of scientific audiences. It is only a small step to extend that skill to an equally wide group of public audiences. Training scientists to speak to the general public first is simply too great a leap.
The optimal place to begin is with young scientists who will soon be evaluated by both specialists and department chairs. Senior scientists may have a more immediate public outreach role, but they are harder to attract. However to maintain interest from any group of scientists, such programmes must promote benefits to research careers rather than stressing improved public engagement. Fortunately, there is a significant overlap. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts. Programmes focused on public outreach should first concentrate on helping scientists communicate with each other.
David Rubenson is the director of the scientific communications firm Nobadslides.com. Prior to that, he was Director of Administration and Planning at the Stanford University Cancer Institute, Director of Special Projects at City of Hope Cancer Center, a strategic planning consultant to the UCLA Brain Research Institute, and a member of the RAND Corporation’s Engineering and Applied Sciences Department.