For more than a decade my colleagues Margaret Rubega and Bob Wyss have co-taught a course to graduate students in science and engineering and undergraduates in Journalism.1 The purpose of the course is to help science students improve their skills in working with journalists and to help journalist increase their skills in interviewing scientists and developing stories from those interviews. One of the projects in this fall’s edition of the course was for the journalism students to interview one of the science graduate students and produce a short video describing the student’s research. Daniela Doncel interviewed Tanisha Williams, a PhD student in EEB whom I co-advise with Carl Schlichting. In addition to interviewing Tanisha, Daniela also interviewed Cindi Jones and me. She assembled a video that explains Tanisha’s work very well. I think Daniela did a very nice job of weaving the disparate interviews into a compelling story, and I think the video looks very good (even though it has me in it). I hope that you agree.
Universitas 21 is a global network of research intensive universities, founded in Melbourne in 1997. It aims to enhance global citizenship and institutional innovation. Since 2012, Universitas 21 has sponsored a Virtual 3-minute thesis competition in which videos of local 3-MT competition winners are judged against one another for a network-wide prize. Last year, one of UConn’s own PhD students, Islam Mosa, won the People’s Choice award. This year First Prize and the People’s Choice award went to Samuel Ramsey of the University of Maryland. Here’s his presentation.
Here’s how a press release from U21 describes his award:
In his winning presentation, Samuel described his research which has focused on the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, which is one of the main reasons for the decline in the honey bee population. Samuel’s research has centred on finding out how this parasite is so destructive; focussing on what the parasite is eating and where on the honey bee they feed. His results have shown that the parasite only feeds on one specific part of the honey bee, the fat body tissue, an important tissue that controls nine major functions within the organism, including the storage of nutrients, the detoxification of pesticides and the production of the immune response. Now he knows what they are feeding on, he is investigating whether it is possible to introduce an agent into this fat body tissue that can disrupt the reproductive cycle of the parasite and eliminate this pest once and for all.
Samuel spoke of his experience of taking part in the 3MT® competition: “I would characterize this experience as challenging but in the best way possible. Ph.D. programs teach us complex technical terms and opaque jargon. Reliance on them can make our entire field inaccessible to the people most in need of our insight. Being forced to explain your work simply, forces you to approach it differently; to understand it better.
So many ground-breaking scientific discoveries never move beyond the pages of journals to public consciousness or public policy, partly because it’s difficult to explain things briefly without sacrificing accuracy. That’s why I’m so glad that I entered this contest. It forced me to refine this skill; one that I’m certain will serve me well throughout my career in science.
I’m so grateful to the University of Maryland for encouraging us to be a part of this competition! I think I’m a better communicator and a better researcher as a direct result. I want to thank everyone who participated in the contest by watching and sharing the videos. I also have to thank my advisor Dennis van Engelsdorp for all of his support, my mentors Kathy and Dr. Kevin Hackett, and my incredible parents who have constantly encouraged my interest in science and who are always so interested to hear what I’m up to in the lab. I had no idea at the time but dinner with them was the best possible practice for this competition.”
Dr Steve Fetter, Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland, spoke of the university’s delight in Samuel’s achievement: “We are thrilled that Sammy Ramsey won both the U21 3MT® Judge’s Prize and the People’s Choice Prize in this year’s competition. Sammy’s presentation is a wonderful example of how researchers can describe their work to a general audience in a clear, compelling, and engaging manner.”
The international judging panel noted that Samuel’s presentation was really engaging, that Samuel presented clearly and with confidence, and that he articulated his research very well. The general public clearly agreed with the judges and voted Samuel’s presentation top in the People’s Choice competition which took place online during mid-October. With around one third of the overall votes, Samuel clearly impressed the public with his research on the how the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, is affecting the honey bee population and how this could be stopped. Entrants from the University of Nottingham and University of British Columbia were second and third respectively, in the public vote.
I just ran across an old (13 October 2015) press release from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania announcing that Oxford University Press will publish the Oxford Handbook on the Science of Science Communication in 2017.1 The very brief press release on the Annenberg Center’s website makes it sound very interesting. I look forward to learning more about it as its release date approaches. In the meantime, here’s a very brief description lifted from the press release.
The handbook, developed for scientists, academics and students of science communication, will grapple with the failure of widely accessible scientific evidence to effectively inform public controversies on issues including climate change, the human papilloma virus vaccine, and the safety of bio-engineered foods on the market in the United States.
1OUP doesn’t seem to have an announcement of it on its website yet.
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan
As scientists, we tend to think that if we simply lay out the facts, the solutions to the world’s problems will be obvious. Show people the evidence that humans are contributing to global climate change and they will immediately realize that governments and individuals need to work together to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Show them the evidence that vaccines prevent disease with minimal risk and parents will immediately realize that they should make sure their children are immunized against rubella and whooping cough. But of course that doesn’t happen. Why? Because facts aren’t enough. Last month, Richard Grant wrote an article for The Guardian explaining why. He makes two very important points.
- People don’t like being told what to do.
- It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.
And he concludes with a very important observation:
Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
We need to listen more than we talk. We need to understand what people are concerned about and address those concerns. Aristotle understood this a couple of millenia ago (Rhetoric). Blaise Pascal made the same point nearly 400 years ago.
People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others. (link)
So let’s listen to people. Let’s try to understand their concerns. And then, let’s figure out what we can do to address their concerns.
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (attributed: Wikiquotes)
Those of us who are scientists have a tendency to think that if we simply lay out the facts – human activities are causing global climate change, for example – that everyone will listen to us and act accordingly. Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein remind us in a recent New York Times op-ed that the world doesn’t work that way.
[F]or weak believers in man-made climate change, comforting news will have a big impact, and alarming news won’t. Strong believers will show the opposite pattern. And because Americans are frequently exposed to competing claims about the latest scientific evidence, these opposing tendencies will predictably create political polarization — and it will grow over time.
So if scientists (and other experts for that matter) want the public to make informed decisions about complex issues, it’s not enough for us to put out the facts and expect them to speak for themselves. We need to recognize that there is a science of science communication and work with experts in that field to help us find ways to help us communicate more effectively.
One of the first things we have to remember is that communication is not talking.
Sunstein, C.R., S. Bobadilla-Suarez, S.C. Lazzaro, T. Sharot. 2016. How people update beliefs about climate change: good news and bad news. (September 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2821919 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2821919
Paul Stern and colleagues1 use the term “neoskepticism” to describe the view that although climate change is real and although humans are responsible for much of it, the costs of attempting to reduce or mitigate it exceed the benefits.
[N]eoskepticism accepts the existence of [anthropogenic climate change] but advocates against urgent mitigation efforts on various grounds, such as that climate models run “too hot” or are too uncertain to justify anything other than “no-regrets” policies as having net benefits. Mainstream climate scientists are well aware of uncertainty in climate projections. But neoskeptics’ citing of it to justify policy inaction marks a shift of focus in climate debates from the existence of ACC to its import and to response options.
The problem, of course, is that uncertainty is a double-edged sword. It’s possible that the impacts of climate change won’t be as bad as current (mean) projections, but it’s also possible that they will be far worse. Worse yet, the longer we wait to mitigate impacts, the more difficult and expensive it will be to prevent them. In response, they argue both for more attention to decision sciences and to the science of science communication. Both are certainly needed. But they also focus only on part of the science communication that’s needed, the part having to do with facts about costs, benefits, and risks of action or inaction.
As scientists, we pay too little attention to the emotional aspects of persuasion involved in guiding public policy, and here I’m not talking about appeals to “your children and grandchildren” or “our fellow creatures.” I’m talking about the emotions people feel when they think about scientists in particular or experts more generally, for example. Science communication is important even when it isn’t imparting facts or knowledge. In fact, it may be even more important when it’s not imparting facts or knowledge. It may be most important when it’s sharing scientists as caring human beings who can be trusted. Only if we are trusted will anyone listen when we share our insights with them.
1Stern, P.C., J.H. Perkins, R.E. Sparks, and R.A. Knox. 2016. The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism. Science 353:653-654. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf9697
I was catching up on my reading last weekend when I ran across an article in Nature describing Kudos, a site that promises “broaden readership and increase the impact of your research” (https://www.growkudos.com/about/researchers). Here’s a bit more about what they say about themselves:
Kudos is more than a just a networking site, and more than just a publication listing. It is a toolkit for explaining your work in plain language and for enriching it with links to related materials (watch a video about explaining and enriching). Kudos also provides a unique one-stop shop for multiple metrics relating to your publications: page views, citations, full text downloads and altmetrics. When you explain, enrich and share your work through Kudos, we map your actions against these metrics in charts that show you which activities are most effective when it comes to increasing the reach and impact of your work (watch a video about sharing your work).
I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds promising. According to the article in Nature
The site is free for academics because scholarly institutions, societies, publishers and other commercial clients pay for its upkeep. Kudos helps these customers to track and evaluate their researchers (or, in the case of publishers, their authors) and foster a stronger relationship with them, explains Rapple. By encouraging researchers to do outreach, the site also indirectly builds the profile of their institution or their journal, she adds. And Rapple hopes that publishers and institutions can build up valuable intelligence from the Kudos database about the effects of different kinds of outreach. The site has established partnerships with some 65 publishers so far, including well-known firms such as Wiley and Taylor & Francis.
I’m going to try register soon. I’ll keep you posted on what I find.
In early June, Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom. (Image at left By Policy Exchange [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons) He helped lead the effort that lead to the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. He appeared on a Sky News program where he “refused to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union, saying that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.” (https://next.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c) While Gove was speaking about economists, his words have clear implications for scientists. Being expert isn’t enough. Commanding the facts isn’t enough. I’m no expert, but this strikes me as a pretty good example of why the “deficit model” of science communication (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_deficit_model) is wrong.
Writing in EoS, Amy Luers and David Kroodsma have some good advice. Don’t report facts. Join conversations. Here are a few of the key points:
- Science communicators need to focus on developing strategies to join and initiate conversations that start with people, not science.
- Credibility is determined more by the communities scientists are associated with than by the papers they publish.
- Scientists should embrace the fact that online communities enable people to come together and collaborate, and use this to identify new opportunities for coproduction of knowledge that can complement more conventional science communication efforts.