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Speaking Up for Science

We Need Effective Science Communicators Now More Than Ever

NASA Goddard Institute Director James Hansen addressing Congress June 24, 2008 SOURCE: U.S. House of Representatives The time has come for scientists to stand up and communicate to policymakers the reasons why science helps Americans live safer, healthier, and more productive lives. NASA Goddard Institute Director James Hansen addressing Congress in June of this year.

At first blush, the worlds of finance and science could not seem more different. While most scientists spend their careers toiling in relative obscurity for modest wages, receiving the occasional award or recognition from their colleagues, bankers and analysts on Wall Street typically reap huge paychecks and wield tremendous influence over their peers in the financial sector and on Capitol Hill. In one important respect at least, they share a similarity: both depend on a reliable source of funding to function smoothly.

If we’ve learned anything from the financial crisis (and I certainly hope we have), it is that the priorities of Wall Street still largely dictate the priorities of our governments. Who would have ever thought that one of the most gung-ho, pro-market administrations in recent history would bail out several investment firms and—gasp—nationalize (at least partly) others? Yet, at the same time that some governments are frantically shoring up their faltering financial markets by shoveling in billions of dollars, they also are preparing deep cuts in spending for less “essential” sectors. One of those likely to be affected in the short-term is government science. That’s why now is the time for scientists to stand up, speak up, and practice communicating to policymakers the reasons why science helps Americans live safer, healthier, and more productive lives.

One reason why scientists rarely, if ever, get a seat at the table in Washington D.C. is that the profession lacks charismatic, influential leaders (and, no, Al Gore does not count).

Although President-elect Barack Obama promises to boost research funding during his first term in office, and pledged to double the budget of the National Institute of Health over the next decade, one can expect to see some degree of retrenchment. Unfortunately, this could mean science budgets will stagnate further or remain at the lows imposed by the previous administration. According to the National Science Foundation, federal research funding fell for 2 years running in real terms between 2006 and 2007 for the first time in its 35-year record-keeping history.

To say that further cuts would come at the worst possible time is no small exaggeration. The Obama administration will need to deal with a number of pressing science-related issues, such as managing the threat of bioterrorism and the budding nanotechnology market—and that’s not even including tackling the looming climate crisis. Science may have been persona non grata on the campaign trail (despite the best efforts of the Science Debate 2008 team), with climate change only making token appearances in several debates, but it can longer fly under the radar. Indeed, as Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney pointed out earlier this week, Obama made it clear in his Tuesday night speech that science is as pivotal to our future as it has been to our past, saying of the 20th century: “A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.”

But already we have seen several prominent research labs close up shop under the strain of funding difficulties, and we will likely see many more in the coming months as the credit crunch’s tentacles continue to spread. With many universities set to pare back their hires over the coming years, an already poor job market for new science graduates in academia could become bleak.

So what should be done? For one thing, those who value science and the innumerable contributions it has made to society should continue make the case to their elected representatives that we need policies that maintain and expand research funding. In an ideal world, your average news consumer would be familiar enough with the latest science so as to appreciate the challenges we face and the need for more federal support. (A man can dream, can’t he?)

On a more fundamental level, what we need right now is not necessarily more scientists (though that certainly wouldn’t hurt), but more effective science communicators. One reason why scientists rarely, if ever, get a seat at the table in Washington D.C. is that the profession lacks charismatic, influential leaders (and, no, Al Gore does not count). In an arena dominated by lawyers, former bankers, and military officers, rare is the legislator who hails from a background in research or academia—with a few notable exceptions.

As much as scientists like to disavow it, there is much truth to the well-worn stereotype of the scientist as a reclusive nerd. When scientists do congregate en masse, they tend to split off by discipline—the chemists stay with the chemists and the biologists stay with the biologists. Moreover, the scientific community, though close-knit, is very insular: researchers often have little patience for journalists or the average layman when it comes to communicating their work. “If only they knew what I knew,” they say, “then they would understand why my research is so important.”

Unfortunately that is not necessarily the best way to get your point across to an uninformed public—or to ingratiate yourself to a skeptical but powerful politician, for that matter. In their landmark article on the subject, called “Framing Science,” Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor of communication at American University, and Chris Mooney argue that scientists must learn to actively “frame” their research to make it relevant to a variety of audiences. Because regular citizens are often unable to weigh competing theories and arguments, they say, scientists need to pare down complex issues, or “frame” them, in order to help the average news reader understand why it matters and, if action is necessary, what should be done.

While many scientists remain resistant to the idea, suggesting that science should always be kept separate from the political process, several organizations have stepped into the void to provide media training and policy fellowships to the younger generation of scientists.

Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, or COMPASS, organizes training sessions on campuses around the country to help faculty and graduate students in the marine sciences communicate information to the public, the media and policymakers. National fellowship programs such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s prestigious Science & Technology Policy Fellowship place freshly-minted Ph.D.s in government agencies—everything from the FBI to the USDA—to help them learn the ropes of the legislative process. Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Research!America are vocal advocates for research and help to bring important science issues to the fore of policy conversations.

We will need as many effective communicators as we can muster if we hope to successfully confront the scientific challenges of the 21st century, and now is the moment to speak up and be heard.

Jeremy Jacquot is a graduate student in marine environmental biology at the University of Southern California and is a contributing writer for VentureBeat, DeSmogBlog, The Huffington Post, and TreeHugger.

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