29 March 2010
Welcome to The Plainspoken Scientist
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.”
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.
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.
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
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Congratulations on this innovative approach to the science communications challenge. Anecdotes like the ones in this first blog entry that illustrate scientists discovering the value, and fun, of communicating to wider audiences than they normally might want to reach could prove catalytic. They might get hooked.
Best of luck with the project.
I’m working at the science-policy interface. In general it is fine to talk about work but there is a risk that -if you talk to much- your work becomes driven by the communication and not by the due scientific dilligence. If you take climate change as an example it is very difficult to find the right balance in order not to pollute the whole thing. On the one hand there is an urgent need for political action and on the other hand a damned difficult scientific problem not easy to investigate. The wrong or inaccurate message has the potential to detroy necessary political action. Think long before you speak.
[…] American Geophysical Union (AGU) hat seit März 2010 einen Wissenschaftskommunikations-Blog (“The Plainspoken Scientist“) eingerichtet, auf […]
Is the communication between the scientists and non-scientists a ‘two-way’ street or a ‘multi-lane, unidirectional superhighway’??
So, the idea is to write/speak in layman’s terms to be more accessible to non-(geo)scientists. But when a year two physics student reads cube and draws tube, geez! the communication turns into divide overflow. Lucky that was a single extraordinary event in my experience! Would other younger peers have similar however not that drastic misconceptions in their cognitive maps? Can a conversation be kept using correct terminology (not sci-lingo) between K12, first degree, holders and academics?
I hope it can!
All the best and A+ for a great effort!
These great anecdotes themselves illustrate the power of story – showing rather than telling.
In climate communication, in particular, we desperately need more good anecdotes and people-centered stories to breath life into presentations and articles.
Collecting and making available anecdotes that illustrate some aspect of climate change is on the
“to-do list” at ClimateBites.org.