29 March 2010

Welcome to The Plainspoken Scientist

Posted by

A BBC reporter interviews a researcher at the 2010 Ocean Sciences meeting

Why start a blog on science communication?

The place: A restaurant in Santa Cruz, California. I’m having dinner with some friends after a week of hard work running the press operation at AGU’s Fall Meeting up the coast in San Francisco. I’m discussing science communication with Jan, a physicist who’s currently doing climate change research in Germany. “I don’t really care about letting the public know about my research,” says Jan. “The only people I want to reach are other scientists working in my field.”

Oh my.


The place: Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. A graduate student in oceanography is telling me about how mad it makes her when she hears yet another person saying that scientists are poor communicators.

“There are a lot of us out there who are putting a lot of time and effort into doing outreach. And frankly, I think we’re quite good at it,” she says.

She’s right.


The place: Toronto Convention Center, Toronto, Canada. My boss and I are filming graduate students in a workshop on communicating science to the public as they try to describe their research in very simple terms: avoiding jargon, using everyday analogies.

Local Bay area TV reporters filming a scientist at the 2009 Fall Meeting

Magdalena, who studies new technologies to remove a chemical from groundwater, is doing a great job: “To clean up, we normally suck this chemical up, like with a vacuum cleaner, but because these contaminants are viscous, like honey, they’re quite hard to get out of the ground. But with this new technology we use, we’re increasing the temperature of the chemical and making it less like honey and more like water, and so it’s easier to take out of the ground.”

Then, in response to a question about her work, Magdalena asks to switch back to technical terms. But, with our encouragement, she forges ahead without that crutch—and does wonderfully. Her face lights up. “Hey, this is actually more fun than the kinds of scientific discussions I have in academia.”

Gee, she just made me happy.


These anecdotes illustrate the reasons why my colleagues and I at AGU felt it was time to start a blog on science communication. We wish to encourage scientists to reach out to the public and to do so with plainspoken discussion, be it in face-to-face interactions, through the media, or online. This blog aims also to showcase and support researchers who are already doing a great job at communicating science to the public, and to provide tips and a discussion forum for those engaged — or wishing be engaged —  in conveying accurate information, and the appeal of science, to everybody.

— Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer