3 C’s of communicating science: Clarity, Creativity, Curiosity
Image by Zachary Erickson
Although the rain came down unexpectedly in Pasadena on May 6, it did not stop more than 30 researchers and scientists from attending Sense About Science USA’s first 2016 Public Engagement Workshop for Scientists at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). They came from within the university as well as from the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to talk about why public discussions about science are important and how scientists can effectively initiate those conversations.
The day began with two scientists from Caltech, Sean Carroll, Ph.D., professor of Physics, and Joann Stock, Ph.D., professor of Geology and Geophysics, talking about their experiences with doing public outreach and why they think it is an important part of their work. “It is not the responsibility of all scientists to do public outreach,” Carroll said, “but it is important for our fields’ survival. So the burden is on those of us who do it well.”
According to Carroll, there are two types of academic research: that which is practical and useful to society, and that which is too theoretical to be useful to society (at least for now). For those scientists whose work falls into the first category, it behooves them to discuss this with the very public affected by their research; and for scientists whose work falls in the second category, it is even more vital to participate in public discussions because they need to convince society that funding curiosity is important.
Stock, a seismologist, knows all too well that the research she does and discoveries she makes can have an effect on people outside of her lab. Reporters often call on her to provide context in TV or radio interviews after an earthquake has occurred, especially Spanish language outlets as she can speak the language. The unexpected outcome of this is that since she’s not a native Spanish speaker, she uses simpler words and jargon-free explanations; this is a good reminder for her of how scientists need to speak in simple terms and concepts rather than their field’s complex terminology.
During the Q&A section, a few people noted their concern about misinformation and inaccuracies in the public arena: What can be done to combat this?
One step to stemming the spread of misinformation, offered Stock, is for scientists to recognize when they are stating opinions and when they are providing scientific evidence and facts. Moreover, oftentimes, it helps to give the public specifics to answer questions, instead of a plethora of information.
Answering direct questions isn’t the only way to engage with the pubic and journalists. Before we broke for lunch, both Carroll and Stock emphasized the need for creativity in doing outreach—write a book, talk to students, help out at a museum. But if you’re going to work with journalists, they said, remember that they are not the enemy and are trying to get things right.
Image by Zachary Erickson
When we returned, it was time to hear from the journalists on the panel, Amina Khan from The Los Angeles Times and Sanden Totten of NPR affiliate KPCC. Totten started the session by talking about some of the reasons journalists choose the stories they cover: curiosity or cool factor, new or game-changing discovery, a conflict story between scientists or trends in a field, timeliness, or regional importance. Both he and Khan mentioned how much they love to “see” the science—when possible they like to tag along with scientists or visit their labs to see the scientific process in-action.
However, the pressures of journalism don’t always allow for that. Khan’s newspaper downsized from six fulltime science reporters to just two to three. Deadline demands and productivity requirements mean working on tight schedules. And, it is not unusual for Khan to be assigned a story that requires her to read a paper, do the appropriate research, talk to the scientists involved, talk to external scientists, and write a piece all within four hours. In fact, before joining us for the workshop at Caltech, she had been assigned a story which she had to research and report on in less than two hours!
With a scarcity of resources and time, it is important for scientists to be available via email or phone near the date of their study’s publication. Khan noted that 70 percent of the stories she covers for the LA Times come from press releases she receives from universities, research institutes, and journals under embargo (a notification giving access to review the study materials and interview the scientists involved one to seven days prior to its publication, under the agreement that nothing will be published by the news outlet until after the embargo has lifted). But this doesn’t mean that scientists and journalists can’t interact outside of this framework. Totten also noted that he is open to scientists calling him with a story; most of the time it’s not one he would cover, but he is happy to hear from scientists at any time, as sometimes those phone calls or emails lead to great stories.
Before the session ended, there was a quick discussion about what it means to be “on the record” and if scientists could change their quotes after an interview [Note: for an in-depth understanding of how scientists can work better with journalists, please read our Media Guide for Scientists]. Khan and Totten were adamant that quotes can never be changed, unless factually inaccurate (e.g. a scientist said 10,000 when she/he meant 10 million); otherwise, what a scientist said while on the record is fair game.
One place where everything is on the record – with the Library of Congress – is Twitter. And the final panelists that day, Stephanie L. Smith, Digital and Social Media Lead at JPL, and Hall Daily, Director of Government Relations at Caltech, touched on the role of social media and government in public outreach. Though the panelists work with very different groups, they both stressed the importance of knowing your audience. For instance, as Smith pointed out, the Twitter feed for the Mars rover Curiosity – which is written in first-person – can be cute and clever, whereas the Twitter feed for JPL’s asteroid watch needs to respect the gravity of the topic and be factual. Hall followed this by talking about knowing the expectations of the people you are engaging with and making sure both sides listen to one another; public engagement is not about just one person talking.
Before we sought some afternoon sun after a rainy Southern California day, Smith left the audience with a few great tips on engagement based on her years of social media work: know your audience, know the limits of your media or tool, use different communication tools to reach a broader audience, don’t forget the value of talking to niche or specialized communities, and finally remember word choice is important—when you can, stay away from jargon!