Communicating science to non-scientists: Does it really matter?

Posted on January 13, 2014

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by Susan Lamb

Why is it so hard to get messages about scientific research across to the general community? And does it really matter if we do?

scientist-elevatorpitch

To answer the last question first, of course it matters. As a former journalist, I worry when I see messages like the research on climate change distorted for personal or professional gain. The biotech community will understand what community concern can do to new products. And, as the volunteer community liaison chair of a Saskatoon-based research facility I shudder when I hear horror stories about similar facilities in other parts of the world that have been delayed or even shut down by poor understanding from the local community. In the end, support for research resources depends on a larger community understanding. Even though the initial analysis or a research project may be carried out by experts, in the long run, if there is community outrage, even the best ideas won’t get supported.

One of the reasons we have trouble getting our message across is because too many people lack understanding of the scientific process. Add to this the unbelievably busy lives of most people, where their understanding of many issues is reduced to 140 characters. Because they don’t have time to read and analyze complex data that doesn't immediately and directly affect their lives, non-scientists can become vulnerable to quick and easy answers that may not they will hold up to vigorous analysis.

Another problem has to do with poor communication skills on behalf of scientists. Too many researchers can’t explain their work in concise and simple terms. They use a dozen multi-syllable words when six short ones would do. And they have impossibly high standards for journalists who try to communicate their message for them and, as a result, they avoid the popular press. Related to that complexity is the fact that many scientists must speak in nuanced terms while the popular press often wants black and white responses. We have trouble proving a fact absolutely, even though evidence may point strongly that way. Think of the smoking debate, where industry argued for years that scientists couldn’t provide 100% proof that lung cancer was caused by smoking.

Plain old dishonesty on behalf of some researchers is, unfortunately, another reason for communication failures. It doesn't happen often but there are occasionally stories of researchers with conflicts of interest (think of the ‘vaccines cause autism’ debate). Other ethically-challenged come up with arguments that, although they will never make a scientific journal, will get their name in headlines in the popular press. Journalists are trained to tell the other side of the story, even if that side is ill-informed or downright wrong. Remember the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”

What can we do to help get our message out there to ‘civilians?’

First, we have to make communication a priority. Public information requires a different mindset from that which most researchers are familiar with, and thus requires extra initiative. Good communication is not going to happen if it is at the bottom or your ‘to do’ list.

Second, if you are fortunate enough to have professional communicators available to you, use them and do what they tell you. If you are heading into a crisis, don’t even think of trying to handle it yourself without professional communications support.

Here are some other helpful hints:

  • Try to come up with a 30-second summary of your work. Think of the classic ‘elevator talk’ or what you tell your mother that you do. Draft an ‘executive summary’ and be prepared to write or speak it at a moment’s notice.
  • If you have a little longer to make your point (say a speech), provide the listener with advance organizers. Say “I am going to make XX points in this talk.” Then make the points; then summarize by telling them what points you made. Never make more than four or five points as no one will remember more than that. Try to end with the most important argument last. Use well-marked visuals if you can and employ examples from real life (think Stephen Hawking who is brilliant at doing this). Use simple declarative sentences and banish the passive voice from your public discourse.
  • Support science education. If you are asked to speak at a service club or school, don’t hesitate to accept. Offer tours of your facility if you can, even if it takes extra effort. Use every opportunity to tell not only your story, but that of the processes you and your fellow scientists use to come to conclusions.
  • If possible, cultivate non-scientist individuals or groups in the community who can provide you feedback. For example, the local Chamber of Commerce may have a science committee that visits research sites and lectures. VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon has a community liaison committee to ensure there is a group of local individuals who can speak with authority about the work of the facility.
  • If your organization offers a course in media relations, make a point of taking it.
  • If you are interviewed by the popular press, don’t demand perfection. Remember it is your job to speak clearly and concisely about your story; obviously if there are glaring errors, you will want a correction. But if the gist is correct, quit worrying about nuances and think about how you could be more clear another time.

You probably feel you have enough to think about with a busy research agenda, without having to explain your work to non-scientists. But if you and your associates plan to succeed, you cannot do it without the understanding and support of the broader community.

To get your work supported make a point of having a clear message and using every opportunity to communicate it.    

Susan Lamb
is Chair of VIDO-InterVac's Community Liaison Committee
  • John Cross

    Posted on 15/01/2014

    Right on Susan!