science communication: whose job is it?

“These are the general public. They are sincere, intelligent people who just don’t know the lingo,” actor Alan Alda told a sold-out auditorium of scientists at his recent lecture at Cornell University I had a chance to report on.  They’re also the funders, and the people you go to in Congress to get money from for your project.”

As a student interested in science communication and policy, this really hit home: the “general public” is not dumb; our representatives in government — the ones who lobby for funding for our research — are not [typically] dumb. The arbitrary “public” does not want to be treated like they’re second-class citizens. It was such a thrill to get to meet and speak with someone — from an entirely different background than I — so interested and passionate in doing what he can to better the field and practice of science communication.

To remedy this, Alda, host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers and star of M*A*S*H, founded the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, initiated a dialogue on communication’s vital role in science. Unlike most science writing graduate and certificate programs that are independent from science research and curricula, Stony Brook’s program is designed specifically for science graduate students — one may not receive a graduate degree in a scientific field without participating in Stony Brook’s writing program.

Why does this make so much sense?

Alda went on to explain that many people in Congress have complained to him on occasion that they will sit in panel discussions with scientists, and will have no idea what they are talking about.

“They were passing notes down the table saying, ‘Do you know what he’s saying?’ [Keep in mind that] the people on both sides of the table are intelligent. They’re in a tough position. Why would they give money to fund something they don’t understand?”

Though our Congressmen don’t always help themselves, this lack of communication is not their fault: Communication between scientists and the public is a two way street — whether you’re reading an OpEd in the NY Times or whether you’re a policymaker.

Alda’s program and vision is logical, but how can we — as a scientific community — help this even further? For example, why should it be until someone is in their 4th or 5th year of their PhD in astrophysics before they learn how to talk to a journalist, the media, or even one of their non-academic friends?

This is where the conversation must being: Whose job is it?

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Is it a good enough argument to say that scientists are already too busy writing papers to make an effort to communicate them to the public? The people whose taxes are paying for their research? Who their research is affecting?

Perhaps this is the result of not prioritizing communication:

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