So, it's simply not true that scientists lack communication skills in any absolute sense. Successful scientists, by and large, have excellent communication skills. The problem is that those skills have been developed for communication to a very specific audience: other scientists in the same field. The communication strategies that are most effective for scientists talking to other scientists are often not effective when communicating to the general public.

(This problem is not restricted to scientists. The same basic problem afflicts every profession with specialized jargon: academics in the humanities and social sciences, doctors, lawyers, politicians, movie and television producers--even the manager-speak mocked by Dilbert and other comics is an example of communication that works well for a specific audience and fails with people outside that audience. Pretty much any profession whose characteristic style can be mocked in a Saturday Night Live sketch suffers from the same problem as science, to a greater or lesser degree.)

The question, then, is not how to get scientists to develop communications skills, it's how to get them to apply the skills they already have to the problem of talking to the general public. Any successful scientist has the skills needed to communicate science to an audience of other scientists. Those same skills can be used to communicate science to the general public; they just need to be employed in slightly different ways.

Getting scientists to make these changes, though, is a hard problem: the current situation has come about because all of the professional incentives in science reward technical communication to an audience of other scientists, with communication to the general public ignored at best and, in many cases, actively discouraged. This problem is not insurmountable, though: scientists are fundamentally pragmatic people, and if convinced of the necessity of communicating to the general public, they will find a way to get it done.

It's also not necessary to turn every single scientist into a public communications expert--just a few capable scientists engaged in public communication would be enough. All we really need to do is support and encourage those scientists who enjoy speaking to a wider audience but are discouraged from doing so.

So, what incentives do we need to provide? The ultimate prize in academic science is a tenured faculty position, so the best way to encourage public communication by scientists would be to make public communication count toward tenure. Again, this doesn't need to be an extra requirement imposed on all scientists--that only encourages a "checklist" mentality, with each requirement met with the minimum possible effort. What we need is a recognition of public communication as a worthy and important part of the scientific enterprise, one of many different professional activities that are appropriate for a scientist. Too often, public outreach efforts are regarded as a distraction from the "real" business of a scientist. To encourage public communication, we need to reward these efforts as valuable professional service.

These efforts can perhaps be linked with calls for increased emphasis on education. Parents and politicians are beginning to demand better educational results from academia, which indirectly requires an improvement in public communications skills on the part of academic scientists. Effectively teaching introductory classes is not too different from communicating science to the public. Improved teaching will almost certainly lead to better public communication, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, there is no easy, centralized way to change the incentives of academia. The academic system is an emergent property of the activities of vast numbers of academic scientists, and changing the system requires changing their minds. The system can be changed, though, through the local efforts of individual scientists. There is no "Science" in the abstract--we are Science, and if enough individual scientists push for change, we can shift the incentives of the academic system toward where they need to be.

There are a few top-down initiatives that are often suggested from outside academia, but these need to be approached with care. For example, the "broader impact" sections of NSF and NIH grants could be used to force government funded scientists to communicate their results to a wider audience. This will have only limited success without a general change in attitudes, though--the existing requirements are often met with boilerplate statements. Changing behavior through this method would require a willingness to deny funding to otherwise worthy projects for failing to put enough emphasis on communication, a move sure to provoke complaints.

A bolder approach might be something along the lines suggested by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their recent book Unscientific AmericaThey suggest creating new kinds of scientific jobs that focus on communicating science to broader audiences. Such positions would encourage public communication by creating new jobs outside the traditional academic track for scientists who have the interest and skills to communicate science to the general public.

The main obstacle to this proposal is respect; for this approach to succeed, these jobs cannot be seen as consolation prizes for those who "wash out" of the academic career track. A possible solution would be to use the prestige of national professional organizations, such as the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, and others. In many ways, The Science & Entertainment Exchange can be seen as a model of this approach: using the prestige of the National Academy of Sciences to support communication activities that some scientists might regard as frivolous.

Ironically, the current economic crisis may be a boon to such efforts. With the country mired in recession, the already tight academic job market has only gotten worse. When economic conditions make even outstanding candidates struggle to get tenure-track positions, the stress may finally break the myth of academic science as a pure meritocracy and force scientists to recognize a broader range of career tracks as valid and fulfilling paths.

As I said above, convincing scientists that they need to communicate more effectively with the general public is a difficult problem that requires changing the minds and attitudes of many people. Solving it will take a great deal of time and effort, but it starts close to home. Those of us who are in academic science need to do more to encourage our students to consider a wider range of careers than the traditional focus on academia. We also need to support and encourage those students and colleagues who have an interest in bringing science to a wider audience. Doing these things on a local level is the essential first step toward changing the system of academic science for the better.

 

Written by Chad Ozel. Chad Ozel is a professor of Physics at Union College and has a blog called "Uncertain Principles." His new book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, will be in stores in December, 2009.

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