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July 2017 GWIS Lead

Sunday, July 23, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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July 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Nancy Baron: How and Why to Effectively Communicate Scientific Research

Heading into my second year of graduate school, I submitted an abstract to one of the largest conferences in my discipline, The Society of Neuroscience’s annual meeting. As the conference approached, I was contacted because my abstract was selected for the Media Award. How exciting! And scary!

At the meeting, I sat on a panel with primarily mid-career scientists facing journalists asking questions about our research. I had no communication training, and I was nervous, intimidated, and uncertain what to say. What could they possibly want to know about my research? What if I said something wrong? I felt completely unprepared but fortunately one of the female scientists that I met at the conference took me under her wing and showed me how to answer questions from the press.

Media and public communication anxiety certainly afflicted scientists in the past. The “Sagan Effect” (i.e., perception that popular scientists are less academically talented) plagued scientists and many worried that too much visibility would lead colleagues to look down on them. More recently the “Kardashian Index” assesses the discrepancy between academic impact and social media impact. However, in the last decade there has been a shift in scientists’ attitudes toward communicating with the public. Only two decades after Jane Lubchenco called scientists to action in an essay in Science, it seems like scientists are finally on board. 

Indeed, in light of current events, scientists are joining the scicomm (i.e., science communication) bandwagon. Now rather than fearing the Sagan Effect, the Kardashian Index, or wondering why  we should communicate with the public, we frequently ask ourselves, "How do I communicate research with the public?"

To help gain more perspective on how to effectively communicate science, I sat down with the engaging Nancy Baron. Baron is the Director of Science Outreach for COMPASS, an organization that helps scientists communicate their research to the public. She earned her Master’s degree in Global Marine Studies from the University of British Columbia and her B.Sc. in Zoology. Notably, Baron won the 2013 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in the Media, among many other science writing awards. 
Baron’s path to COMPASS followed what she describes as a “squiggly line” that I think many of us can relate to. She started her career as a biologist working in national parks, which eventually morphed into a position as the Director of Education in Vancouver. Later, as a journalist, she put considerable effort into trying to scale up environmental science communications.

She followed this path because of her desire to protect and conserve biodiversity, and she felt she had a bigger impact as a science communicator than she had in the lab. Through COMPASS, Baron works with environmental scientists and hosts communication training workshops around the world. In fact, I felt lucky to get a chance to sit down and talk to Baron as she was in between trips to France and Finland. Despite this hectic schedule, Baron didn’t even hesitate to take the time to talk to me. 
Baron at the 2015 Wilburforce Fellows Training in Seattle, WA. The Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science provides leadership and communication training to scientists from a wide range of career paths, disciplines, and affiliations. Network-mapping and building are important components of the experience. 
As a journalist, Baron met Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist  with the idea that more people need to speak up about their research; Lubchenco wrote about this need in her article “Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science,” a true call to action for scientists. Following that publication, Lubchenco founded COMPASS, a program with the mission to increase science communication. Baron was the first person Lubchenco brought on board. 

When she first started in the world of scicomm, Baron said she tried to think about the interconnectedness of science. She shifted her mindset to how research was relevant to the public and wrote on the subject. Baron believes that we have a social responsibility to share our science with the public, and this starts with relaying why we care about our science and making it personal.

In a recent article in Nature, Baron wrote about the change in scientists’ attitudes toward public engagement. She posits many factors affected this change. She’s noticed that the “passion of younger scientists seems to have convinced more senior scientists to get involved.” She also believes that scientists are influenced by their own data to feel compelled to pass along their knowledge with a greater sense of urgency.
Scientists at Tvarminne marine station in Finland “speed date” their elevator speeches as Baron times them.
We also discussed incentives and education for scicomm. For example, there are increasing numbers of fellowship programs for scientists to receive training (see below). Some universities are also including engagement as criteria for tenure. Although science communication is not traditionally a part of graduate education, Baron believes it should be. I certainly would have been better off sitting on that panel during my second year of graduate school had I received some training.

Baron pointed out other benefits of scicomm: “... [being] an effective communicator makes you a better scientist - makes you a better collaborator…” Talking about your research, sharing it in new ways can enhance communication skills with your colleagues as well.

As we spoke, Baron emphasized the importance of networks and collaboration. She asserted that we need others to provide motivation and that “finding a network of like-minded scientists provides both moral support and opportunities for brainstorming.”

She also noted that this may be particularly important among women in science. In her workshops, Baron finds that women are usually not the first to talk about themselves - rather the men are more likely to volunteer. She suggests that it is important to find your voice, encourage others to find their voices, and work at scicomm because, “good communicators are made, not born.”
Above Left: Baron at the 2017 Vega Fellowship Training 
Above Right: Baron and journalists at the 2017 Vega Fellowship Training in Finland. From left to right: David Malakoff of Science, Ashley Ahearn the host of "Terrestrial" and KUOW reporter/Seattle, and Peter Buchert from HBL Newspaper in Helsinki
Bottom: Vega fellows group shot with journalists
If you’re interested improving your communication skills, Baron recommends starting with “Message Box,” which is a brief guide to help researchers communicate complex ideas. She also recommends checking out her book, “Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to making your science matter.” From this book, you can expect an entertaining, light read that provides a practical how-to guide for scicomm using stories. 

Another easy way to engage in scicomm is through social media, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, all of which have a “way of carrying on conversations beyond the boundaries of institutions.” In addition, these outlets can help build new audiences and foster network development.

If you’re interested in going a little further, says Baron, try out a workshop or a fellowship program. For example, COMPASS provides scicomm coaching and training services. Another organization, #SciFund Challenge provides science outreach training online. The AAAS offers a policy fellowship geared toward translating knowledge into action.

As for a few practical tips, Baron suggests considering the following when you’re thinking about communicating your research:

So what? Why should we care? Customize this for whomever you are talking to and think about their values. 
Find specific examples or metaphors that are relevant to your audience so they can picture what you are describing.
Make it personal! Share why you care. Why do you think it’s important? 
Find the hope. People love hearing about bright spots - what is working.
Finally, in the wise words of the late Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford,  “Know thy audience, know thyself, know thy stuff

If you’re just dipping your toes into the scicomm world, don’t be discouraged if distilling your science for the public doesn’t come naturally! Becoming a skilled science communicator takes time, effort, and practice. Find a network to practice with, and encourage each other to keep building your skills. 

Check out the links below for scicomm training opportunities, examples of exemplary scicomm, and additional reading on scicomm.

Opportunities for training

For additional resources on scicomm, check out the following:
Contributed by Kameko Halfmann. Copy Editor Rozzy Finn.

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