Margaret Marshall, Auburn University’s Director of University Writing, recently joined 35 university leaders from around the country at a conference at New York’s Stony Brook University to examine ways scientists could more effectively communicate with the public. The keynote speaker was actor Alan Alda, a visiting professor at Stony Brook who describes himself as a lifelong science lover.
The four-day Communicating Science Summer Institute was conducted by Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science as it seeks to develop ways scientists can speak and write clearly and conversationally about their work to non-scientists. It was supported by funding from The Kavli Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
“Our participants were an impressive and diverse group from 20 states, full of valuable ideas and great enthusiasm,” said Elizabeth Bass, director of the Center for Communicating Science. “We’re excited at the prospect of continuing to work with them to share ideas and resources about how universities can make science more accessible to the public.”
In his keynote address, Alda recalled his years as host of the documentary series Scientific American Frontiers, interviewing more than 700 scientists around the world. Many of them, he said, were brilliant researchers doing fascinating work but were unable to tell their stories in a compelling way. Too often, he said, they reverted to lecture mode, rather than talking in a person-to-person, conversational way that engages the listener. Alda’s desire to help scientists do better sparked the creation of the interdisciplinary Center for Communicating Science in 2009.
Training methods being pioneered by the center were demonstrated during the conference. One method was the use of improvisational theater exercises to help scientists connect more directly with their audiences. By paying close attention to the needs and reactions of the people with whom they are communicating, scientists can adjust their message to be more effective. Participants also learned how to distill complex information for non-specialists without “dumbing it down.” Participants were videotaped being interviewed by professional journalists so they could practice interview skills.
Howard Schneider, dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism and co-chair of the center’s steering committee, shared strategies with participants for building similar programs on their own campuses.
“There are lots of reasons to do this kind of training,” Schneider said, “but the overriding reason is to boost scientific literacy at a time a when our country is facing crucial public policy decisions on everything from climate change to investment in cancer research and space exploration. At the same time, the public is increasingly bombarded with a flood of information and misinformation. So it’s never been more important to train scientists to communicate clearly.”
Marshall is working with Auburn’s Graduate School and Dean George Flowers to bring these ideas to Auburn students and faculty.
“The Office of University Writing has already partnered with The Center for the Arts and Humanities and the Office of Research to create a faculty anthology, Auburn Speaks, to bring research from multiple disciplines to a public audience,” Marshall said. “We’re also planning a WriteFest event for the fall for graduate students. It’s our mission to help improve the communication abilities of all our students and the Stony Brook Summer Institute provided us with connections to other institutions working on these issues. We’re anxious to work with others to bring some of the Center for Communicating Science’s ideas to Auburn.”