I’ve come across a couple of US projects designed to help scientists speak and engage with the public. The Scientist (online journal) highlighted an acting workshop for scientists led by Alan Alda (known for the MASH tv series, Woody Allen films, and as the host for Scientific American Frontiers tv series). From the article (you do have to register for free access) by Daniel Grushkin,
This is what happens when you cross doctoral work with improvisational acting: A line of fifteen PhD students face each other in an imaginary tug-of-war. “Make sure you’re all holding the same rope,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, their drama coach and a theater professor at SUNY, Stony Brook. “You don’t want to hold a shoelace when the person in front of you is holding a python.”
The students are part of a daylong seminar on communicating science to non scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Prior to the imaginary tug-of-war exercise, they stood before each other and delivered short, off the cuff, introductions to their research meant for public consumption. Their talks were stilted and confused. Some swallowed their voices as they spoke. Others talked at the wall behind their audience.
Asked to describe their emotions during their presentations, one researcher complained, “It felt like I was almost insulting myself by dumbing it down.” Others nodded in agreement. The doctoral students were playing out Alda’s criticism of the science community. Alda believes scientists have been unable to make themselves understood by lay audiences. And as a result are failing to inform the public and policy.
A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reflects Alda’s concern. Though the public ranks scientists third after military personnel and teachers in their contribution to society, only half of Americans believe in global warming and a mere 32 percent believe in evolution. Meanwhile, scientists complain that they’re not being heard. Half say that news media oversimplifies their findings, and 85 percent say the public doesn’t know enough about science. The numbers show a clear gap between the esteem that scientists hold in the public and the knowledge they’re able to transmit.
The other project highlighted by Matthew Nisbet at the Age of Engagement blog is a fellowship program for training in leadership and public engagement for scientists. Pop Tech, an organization which focuses on social innovation and problem-solving ideas, is behind this effort. From the Sept. 15, 2010 posting,
PopTech is perhaps best known for its annual PopTech conference held every October in Camden, Maine. Called by Wired magazine a “must-attend for intellectual heavy weights…,” the conference features a line up of interactive talks by social innovators, scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers, with the goal of identifying new ideas and brokering collaborations.
PopTech … has announced its inaugural class of 20 Science Fellows. The fellows are early to mid-career leaders in fields such as energy, food supply, sustainability, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security.
The fellows were chosen based on their scientific credentials but also for their innate communication and leadership skills. As PopTech describes, the program is designed to provide the Science Fellows with long term communication and leadership training, mentorship, and access to thought leaders across sectors of society including those from the fields of media, business, social innovation, and education.
These projects provide an interesting contrast to the furor which greeted a paper that Chris Mooney wrote about scientists needing to pay more attention to the art of listening (my June 30, 2010 posting). I can certainly see how the acting class could lead to better listening skills (or paying better attention to your audience) but am not so sure about the Pop Tech fellowship project (a bunch of really interesting people getting together and getting excited means they tend to proselytize to the uninitiated for at least a short period afterwards). Despite my reservations about the fellowship project I find these efforts encouraging.