Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scientific Communication

I attended a day long workshop today with Cornelia Dean (science writer for the NYTimes). She has recently written a book called "Am I Making Myself Clear?". It is a guide for scientists about communicating with non-scientists. The book is an easy read and definitely kept my attention. The workshop was definitely a productive way to spend a Saturday!

It was really interesting to hear a group of 12 PhD students struggle to explain to a "normal person" what they study in one minute without using jargon. I actually consider myself pretty good at talking to non-scientists (I did teach middle school for three years after all), and I struggled to come up with a coherent message. The idea that this is something we should think about before hand and have ready had not occurred to me.

It is interesting to think about how universities typically do not encourage or reward scientists who make an effort to communicate with the public or participate in policy discussions. In fact scientists who do make this a priority are often looked down upon by their peers. I suppose this is because that type of communication is not advancing their research, and therefore represents time not spent on that research. It would seem to me that this represents a somewhat flawed values system within the scientific community. I agree that our priority needs to be research, but I think that for the good of the world communication of that research (other than in peer reviewed journals) to the general public needs to be a priority as well. I think this is especially true for scientists funded by taxpayer dollars. Our discoveries belong in the public domain, and the idea that they somehow trickle out of our scientific publications and into the "real world" is inaccurate. This workshop made me realize that it isn't the job of the media to do this communication for us.

When I think about some of the scientists I most admire (Ed Wilson, Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson being the first few who came to mind) I think less about their discoveries and focus more on the books they wrote for general audiences, as well as the activism they dedicate(d) themselves to. I think I admire them in large part because they are/were truly gifted communicators and their writings possess the ability to make people care. As I move forward in my research I look forward to finding ways to share my stories. I hope I have stories to share! Stay tuned...

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