25 June 2013
By Thomas Sumner
How would you bring up scientific funding if you bumped into your senator while he’s buying cheese and cured meats at the local market? How about getting a stranger interested in safer alternatives to lead-based welding solder? Communicating science to lawmakers and laypersons is important, but scientists too often get tongue-tied talking with everyday folks.
Scientists from around the world heard from policy and communications gurus Monday at the Science & Policy Communications Workshop about how to hone a scientific message for the general audience. The workshop kicked off AGU’s 2013 Science Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., and in part focused on preparing attendees for communicating with the policy makers and journalists attending the conference.
“We all have examples where we wish science was being used in making decisions,” said AGU President Carol Finn. “If research is conducted in a vacuum and the results and lessons learned are not shared broadly, then societal benefits will be severely limited. We have a responsibility that policy makers and the public understand the value of our science and have access to the best scientific knowledge to help solve some of these difficult issues in our communities.”
According to a survey by the National Science Foundation, Americans have more confidence in scientific leaders than any other institution except the military. Matthew Wright, a communications manager for the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, says this makes scientists the best science spokespeople.
“If you do not reach out, someone else with less knowledge and an agenda will,” Wright said.
But connecting with the public can be tricky; After all, most Americans don’t have a science background and can easily be confused or misinformed from poor communication. The panelists shared a few key tips to keeping your words clear and your audience awake.
Keep it simple
Avoid going into too much detail. Focus on explaining a few key points well rather than firing off a barrage of technical minutiae.
“The more you say, the less they hear,” said Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication. The carefully crafted message is what they’re going to remember.
Let your passion show and connect personally with your audience. Use metaphors, examples and stories to explain complex subjects. As humans they helps us connect and relate to subjects better than any graph or statistic ever could. Engage with your listeners rather than lecture them, Hassol said.
Use words the average person understands. For a lot of scientists, certain words roll off the tongue freely that sound like a foreign language to the average person on the street. For instance, rather than using the word “anthropogenic,” say “human-caused,” Hassol said.
“Remember: you’re not dumbing down, you’re translating,” Wright said.
Some scientific terms might be in the public vernacular, but mean something completely different. For example, most people imagine spray cans when they hear the word “aerosol,” rather than tiny atmospheric particles. Other words can have completely opposite meanings. “Positive feedback” means praise from someone, such as a boss giving positive feedback on a project. In science, though, this means a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.
Hassol includes a few examples of these dual-definition words in an article she published in Physics Today (including enhance, theory, uncertainty and bias).
Learn the lingo
Besides avoiding technical words and concepts, understand some words come with emotional or political baggage. These include terms such as regulate, reduce, cut, control, conserve, restrict, limit and sacrifice.
Instead, Hassol says, focus on your particular audience’s morality. Words such as stewardship, responsibility, thrift, self-reliance, patriotism and economic prosperity can make people who might otherwise ignore you care about your research. Similarly, don’t present problems without proposing solutions. People tend to ignore hopeless issues.
Structure your talk
A scientific paper starts with background, goes into supporting details and ends with results and a conclusion. Don’t structure your talks to the average listener like this. Instead, start with the bottom line, why it matters and then end with your supporting details. Similarly, don’t lead with what you don’t know. Be confident!
Generally you’ll focus on five key areas, Wright said, describing a message-crafting exercise called the “The Message Box” originally created by the science communications organization COMPASS: a central issue, why it matters, what problems it causes, what solutions are available and what benefits putting those solutions into place would have.
As you explain the science and issues, anticipate misunderstandings. For instance, people often think ozone depletion has something to do with the climate change problem.
Getting policy makers interested and informed
Erica Bickford, an AGU Congressional Science Fellow for Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, presented some tips during the workshop for engaging with science policy makers. First and foremost, don’t be disappointed when you’re set to speak with a staffer for 30 minutes rather than a senator or representative. Politicians typically juggle many issues and get filled in on specifics by their staff.
Bickford went on to mention that staff members rarely read background materials sent ahead of time, so don’t assume they know the relevant context of your meeting. Be sure to ask a particular request rather than just presenting an issue. Ask for legislation, a public statement or some other act of support.
After your meeting, leave a business card and send follow-up emails. Congressional offices meet with many people on many issues, so stay on their mind. If you can, wait until Congress isn’t in session to talk with a politician’s staff. They won’t be nearly as busy and will have the time to focus on your issue.
— Thomas Sumner is AGU’s science writing intern