Monday, June 27, 2011

Making public communication part of scientific responsibility

Must scientists bother about sharing their work with the public? I've spent a lot of my career working with scientists and engineers to help them communicate with public and media audiences. Over time, I've learned that to many scientists, dealing with the public and the media is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, an all or nothing proposition that doesn't work in their favor.

So I was delighted that the American Association for the Advancement of Science Professional Ethics Report invited me to write Making Public Communication Part of Research Responsibility: What Scientists Can and Should Do. In it, I share my observations on some of the factors that keep researchers from communicating with broader audiences, and simple steps they can take to make communicating an integral part of their research activities. My take: Scientists should view the public and the media as shareholders in their work, and approach them that way. I  offer some simple steps toward the goal of fitting communication into the scientist's research, and hope you'll share this with a scientist or expert near you.

But we're not there yet: Whiteboard insights

The devil and the deep blue sea extremes showed up in my most recent workshop for university researchers on communicating with media and public audiences. The group was small enough to let the participants introduce themselves and their research--and one thing more. I asked each of them to write down one word that described their view of the media, and here's what we got:
  • Semi-accurate
  • Curious
  • Fast
  • Diversity 
  • Advertising
  • Important
  • Change
  • Energetic
  • Gotcha
  • Partisan
  • Shallow
  • Exaggeration
  • Misunderstanding
  • Enthusiasm
  • Spin
  • Clarity
  • Hide
Most of those are self-explanatory, but "advertising" signaled one researcher's amazement that advertising drives the amount of space and time journalists get to write about or describe a topic, and "hide" was what one researcher said was her default method for dealing with interviews. Scientists who had journalist friends, or  just more experience with and openness toward reporters were able to share observations like "change" and "fast" to describe the nature of reporters' work.

Communicators hoping to connect experts with reporters might want to try this exercise. Have you asked them this question?

Related posts: Your expert's fear of failure

Helping communicators gain expertise in training experts: A new workshop (Register here for the workshop and learn more)

Are your experts blowing off media interviews? 

And a related post from The Eloquent Woman blog: The all-in-one for eloquent scientists: Resources and role models

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