Scientists are urged to communicate, to talk with journalists about their own work as well as larger political and scientific issues, but it isn’t so easy to know how to do it. Great help is available from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 3 of their latest webinars are a jumpstart to getting your thoughts and your research out there in the bigger world beyond the the bench.
“Communication science amid confusion: How to deal with tough questions,” was given on September 17th by Nick Schrope and Rich Hayes, who wrote one of my favorite communication books, “A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media.” (2006, Rutgers University Press). This theme was carried further on September 19 with “A Scientist’s Guide to the Media: Sharing a Compelling Message with the Press.” Rich Hayes gave this webinar as well, joined this time by Brenda Equizol.
Some of the key points of these lectures are:
Be prepared to actively seek out opportunities to communicate. Make sure the communication center at your workplace knows about your work, and understands the significance of interesting results: they may put out, with your help, a press release. Pitch your own stories and ideas directly, as well. If you want to comment on issues beyond your immediate research, consider writing an op-ed or letter to the editor to your local paper. Contact a local reporter, offer to be a resource, or suggest stories.
Know your core message. Before a media interview, find out from the reporter or interviewer what the topic will be. Never, if possible, do any interview without at least a few minutes preparation time: it is quite okay to say on the phone, “Could you call me back in 30 minutes.” Use the time to think about what you want to say- and what you don’t want to say.
Prepare your message for the audience, not the reporter, and help the reporter give your message. Have a quote or two ready- reporters will almost always like to have a quote for the story. Perhaps have an astute quip or metaphor ready, even a cliche, if that will help the audience understand your point. Avoid science jargon, however- even words as seemingly innocent and clear as aerosols might mean only spray cans to some members of the public. Anticipate questions: you can ask your public affairs office, or a non-scientist friend, what questions they would have for your topic.
Everything is on the record! (Even if the reporter says it isn’t.)
Practice the bridge! Transition back to your core message! The reporter may have another agenda (sometimes curiosity, sometimes hostility), or you may see that the point of the interview is getting lost in unrelated or difficult questions. Acknowledge the question, and redirect the topic. The bridge can also be used if you don’t know the answer. Some examples might be: “That is a matter that is still confusing to scientists. But what I can tell you is that…” or “The short term effects are certainly a problem, but the long term effect has been described in this study…”
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Our fears are greater than reality here, as journalists are generally trying to honestly reflect scientist’s views. Prepare, and make sure your core message comes through, and don’t worry too much about being misquoted. There is a slight chance someone may push your words to enhance controversy, but at the worse scenario, you can ask for a retraction. As for fear of omission, very common among scientist’s- prepare beforehand, and remember that no one
Don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know! One attribute of science (and scientists) that is often misunderstood is the changing nature of what is known. I heard a great example last week of this at a seminar given by Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996. He has written several books for the public and was in Seattle on a book tour. He urges scientists to speak out about climate change, and said about himself, “With climate change, I don’t follow all the math, and tend to accept the conclusions, but with biology, I can understand it and see the effects.”
Think like a scientist- and a citizen. You are both.
The 3rd seminar in the mini-series, “Advocacy for the Aware but Busy Expert,” perhaps should have been the first seminar, as it was a good introduction to both the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and a bit of the history of scientists speaking out to the public about science issues. Speaking were Peter C. Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy at UCS, and Michael Halpern, Program Manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS.
Whether or not scientists should be involved in the use of science in society is still debated, but the UCS always made such activist work central to the organization. UCS was founded by physicists at M.I.T. in 1969, while the U.S. war on Vietnam was being waged to great protest in the U.S. The founders wanted to advocate as physics practitioners for environmental protection, and this continues as the mission today, with a focus on climate change and clean energy sources.
Peter Frumhoff gave the introduction to UCS, and to some of the opposing viewpoints scientists working on climate science encounter today. He gave two quotes from scientists with differing opinions on the role of scientists as activists:
“If you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility [as a scientist] to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place….we just have to be clear when we are speaking as scientists and when we are expressing values.” 2001, Mario Molino, UCS member and 1995 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry for the study of depletion of stratospheric ozone.
“I became a climate scientist because I care about the environment but we have a moral obligation to be impartial” said Tamsin Edmonds of the University of Bristol in the UK, quoted in The Guardian on July 13, 2013.
Speaking out, not speaking out- each is framed as a moral issue. Our training is in objectivity in observation and decision making, and this idea that we must be impartial is deep, almost as deep as the idea that science is done to better mankind. Peter noted an important addition to the arguments: that scientists are members of the public and have a right to express their convictions (found in the 2009 3rd edition of “On Being a Scientist,” by the National Research Council). They are citizens and scientists, both, with the rights and responsibilities of both.
Michael discussed the practical aspects of being an outspoken scientist, as the question he often hears at UCS is “What can I do?” It is not always immediately obvious what an individual can do in any particular place, and he suggest each person consider the following points:
1. What issues interest me? Obesity, drug addiction, etc.
2. What parts of my skill set do I want to share? Analyze data, speak out, etc.
3. What time commitment am I willing to make? Long or short term, want to work steadily or in bursts, etc.
4 What activities fit me best? Public speaking, assistant to non-profit, resource for journalists.
5. How do I want to benefit? Build your profile, become a better communicator, shape public opinion, etc.
Michael emphasized that is is a process to know what you want to work on, and gave (besides suggesting contacting USC to plug into already organized and ongoing initiatives) sources of information for getting engaged, such as the American Geophysical Union (agu.org) and Nature (nature.org).
The session ended as did the others with questions from the web audience, many of which concerned communication worries and interacting with members of the media. One subtlety that might be very useful to many is that scientists should not start with uncertainty in dealing with the public, even when trying to counteract political pundits who conversely push certainty without evidence.
Remember that it is not necessary to transmit every detail of every possible exception, but be as accurate and honest as you can.
Communicating Science Amid Confusion: https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-webinars/SN-workshop-9-17-13/index.htm
A Scientist’s Guide to the Media: https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-webinars/SN-workshop-9-19-13/index.htm
Advocacy for the Aware but Busy Expert: https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-webinars/SN-workshop-9-30-13/index.htm