The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

August 2012 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
or choose print from the menu)

Will the Science Communication Experts Please Stand Up?

10 August 2012

Widely acclaimed science author and chronicler of political tomfoolery with scientific knowledge, Chris Mooney, has a bold message to share with scientists. It is a challenging message on the topic of science communication, recently addressed at the National Academies of Science Sackler Colloquium in May. The message is that the age of empowerment for aspiring science communicators is upon us. Today, there has never been a better time for self-starting science communicators to choose their platform, step out into the public sphere, and talk to society about science.
This year over 150 United States scientists, leading universities and national associations published a “Call for Presidential and Congressional Debates on Science & Technology”, which cited the “increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making.” It is a call that needs not just the support of political leaders but the entire citizen body that stands to gain from scientific innovations that will drive economic, medical, and technological solutions of the future.
But this noble goal is fraught with all kinds of practical hurdles for science communication. Not least is the question of where to focus the energy of scientists who are already elbow deep in the hard work of their research and academic writing. Once upon a time, scientists could wait for the media to call with questions and then tell it to the world. Not anymore. While science journalists continue to play a vital role, the science communication environment is shifting at a rapid pace.
The shift means that there are new kinds of opportunities emerging for scientists to use communications media themselves. Speaking at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Orlando last week, Chris Mooney said that the decline of science sections in news outlets and the slow hemorrhaging of science journalists is a chance for scientists to grab web 2.0 by the horns, take command of a core scientific message, and tweet (or “scweet” for the initiated science tweeters) away until the cows come home. And when they do, those cows should deliver vitamin enriched milk, produce more oxygen and less methane, and, preferably, walk in perfectly timed lines to the cow shed.
As part of his work with the National Science Foundation’s Science Becoming the Messenger program, Mooney has trained well over a thousand scientists to do precisely this. For hours scientists learn the art of the sound bite that overcomes psychological or cognitive barriers to understanding, the technique of masterful power point presentation, and the simple but highly effective potential of digital media. It is a training process that can inspire some scientists to take off immediately on Twitter, or for others to just think more carefully about the one succinct science message that they could communicate in a cocktail party conversation.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin