Insiders vs Outsiders

Below is another interesting paper I came across in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The paper discusses the importance of gaining ‘wider communication skills’ and believe that this is an important issue in discourse analysis. It is inevitable that as you specialise in your field you will pick up specific jargon and often feel reluctant to discuss certain issues with what I label here as ‘outsiders’. So the accustomed formula is: Jargon+insiders=insiders, whereas what’s suggested in this paper is Jargon+insiders+outsiders= middle. Tuning into the latter formula is the least acquired skill and therefore needs to be considered. I, for instance, sometimes encounter difficulty in talking about my research to non-linguists and often use differing strategies in order to accommodate my speech, and using metaphorical language is one of many examples. Attending multidisciplinary conferences is also therefore strongly advised in this respect. Plus, presenting  your work in another language (if you have wide linguistic skills) is also useful.  I have never for instance presented my work at a Turkish-medium (even though I am bilingual, English-Turkish) conference and this is one challenge awaiting for me. I will work on this promise!

Teaching Future Scientists to Talk

By Jack C. Schultz and Jon T. Stemmle

Much has been written about the need for scientists to speak more plainly and compellingly about their research. Yet complaints about their poor communication skills continue unabated in the popular and academic press and in agencies that finance their work.

But perhaps it’s too late to work on those communication skills once scientists are already established. That’s why we have devised a program, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that seeks to build and maintain those skills early—in undergraduates who are exploring research careers by working in life-science laboratories.

Our program is a collaboration between life scientists at the University of Missouri at Columbia and faculty members in the  School of Journalism. We pay students to work in research laboratories and develop independent research projects, and, at the same time, we train them in journalistic and communication techniques. Participating students produce blogs, news articles, videos, and other science-news reports using our media lab and the SciXchange Web portal. They meet weekly or biweekly with members of the journalism school for mentoring and to discuss the relationship between research and the public’s perception of it.

Our goal is to produce a generation of researchers who appreciate the need for public communication and are prepared to do it well.

Cross-training young scientists is a fine idea, but it requires bridging a cultural gap between scientists and communicators, whether the latter are journalists, public-relations officers, or others seeking to get science’s messages across to the public.

We knew that many scientists, especially those in mid-to-late career, fail to see the value of bridging that gap and may even be hostile to the idea. For their part, journalists and communicators often feel inadequate when trying to translate science. We have been shocked by the size of that cultural gap during the first two years of our project.

Early on, we were amazed to find that the student researchers selected for our program did not understand what it meant to learn to communicate broadly—even though they had been fully informed of the program’s goals when they joined it. As we got to know our talented participants better, the reason for their confusion became clear: They had already been in research labs too long.

Undergraduates are thrilled to be accepted into the “secret society” of science, where they learn a new language that only they and their research colleagues understand. They are motivated to cement their place in that new community by quickly adopting the lingo.

The speed of that transition came as a shock. Our first cohort of students had been working in labs for about a year, on average, when we began working with them on their communication skills. Already, however, they had difficulty in describing their work to someone outside of their field of study. They were unaware of how the news media were reporting on science, even when the news involved research from their own fields and sometimes from their own labs.

All of that made it difficult for us to start a conversation about how to communicate science to nonscientists. Some of our student researchers had little knowledge of blogs, and didn’t know that some scientists engage in blogging.

We found that we needed half of our first semester to find ways to impress upon these young scientists the importance of broad communication before we could begin helping them develop communication skills. We did this by examining the relationship between public understanding and research support, the responsibility we have to the taxpayer, and the many egregious examples of poor science reporting.  Discussing the cultural phenomenon of distrust of news outlets and scientists allowed students to imagine ways of creating trust and communicating clearly with journalists and others.

Soon the students began bringing their favorite good or bad examples of science-news reports to each meeting. Assignments like critiquing and correcting published news reports, polishing elevator speeches, and reporting on their success (or failure) in getting their families and friends to understand their research allowed us to get into the necessary mechanics and techniques of communication.

Within a year of joining a lab, our student researchers had demonstrated a rapid loss of interest in excelling at communication. We compared their reaction with our experience with recent high-school graduates who join college labs as freshman researchers. Those fresh-faced students are eager to join the research community, and they want to tell everyone about their exciting new work. In fact, most of them have to explain their strange new jobs to their families.

It became clear that if we could catch students before they replace their normal communication styles with the narrow views and language of their labs, we could keep them interested—as they develop as scientists—in reaching out to nonscientists.

Our program is an experiment based on the premise that many scientists are not prepared to communicate with outside audiences. That may be true, but the greatest barrier to clear communication with the public is cultural, not technical, and the more daunting task is to impress upon researchers as soon as possible the need to acquire or retain broad communication skills. Once they are pulled into the disciplinary research society,  it becomes very difficult to recover their interest and skills for communicating with other audiences.

Students in our program are quite capable of learning broad communication skills. By focusing on freshmen and sophomores and dealing with attitudes early, we have learned, we can help them communicate broadly and well.

Our students are now producing scores of blog posts, articles, videos, and photo essays. Two are applying for science-journalism internships, and one has decided on a career change. We are supporting a new student-run club on science communication and outreach on our campus.

What we failed to realize at the start was how difficult it is for even brand-new “scientists” to step outside their isolated disciplinary world, and the importance of working on their attitude first.

Jack C. Schultz is director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Jon T. Stemmle is director of the Health Communication Research Center at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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