Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, by Nancy Baron--A Review

Island Press, ISBN 9781597266635, August 2010

The research scientists do often needs to be communicated to policy makers, the media, and the general public in order to be useful. Unfortunately, the way that scientists learn to communicate with their peers is generally diametrically opposed to how they need to communicate with those outside the scientific world. This book is aimed at helping them speak more effectively to the non-scientists among us.

Scientists and non-scientists frequently experience frustration and annoyance when trying to talk to each other about science. Scientists are trained to present their findings methodically, completely, starting with the question and the study design first, and reserving the conclusion for the end of their paper or presentation. They are trained to cite all prior work that they relied on. They are trained to present information unemotionally; they even write their papers in the passive voice.

This is all completely appropriate for scientific research and the academic world, and an utter disaster for communicating vital information effectively to politicians, journalists, and the general public. As the outreach director for COMPASS (Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea), Nancy Baron teaches public communication skills to scientists in the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. This book is directed at making those skills more widely accessible. While she primarily has in mind environmental scientists, the essential points here are applicable to any scientists who need to talk about their science to journalists or policy makers, and through them, to the general public. It's a clear and highly readable book, that wastes no time in making its key points--which is, in itself, one of her key points.

Because scientific study design, fundraising, carrying out experiments, and academic publication naturally and unavoidably move slowly and take a lot of time, the high-pressure deadlines of journalism or the legislative process are unfamiliar to scientists. In journalism, publication or air time waits for no man In the legislative process, the total time to pass a bill may be long, but critical decisions often have short deadlines and the window of opportunity for someone who is not in the halls of Congress or state legislatures on a daily basis to affect the process are narrow. Senators and representatives have packed schedules every day that they're in Washington. Critical meetings may happen walking from one place to another. Scientists with no prior political experience may think they're being brushed off when asked to meet with a staffer, when in reality making a good connection with the staffer that handles your area of interest can be the most effective way of being heard in the policy-making process.

Another difficulty is that scientists are so aware of the uncertainties of science that they have a natural desire to qualify everything they say, outline areas of doubt, etc., when the journalist wanting to write a story or the the member of Congress wanting to know what legislation to push or how to vote on an upcoming bill really need to know what the scientist thinks and feels on the issue. If a point is well-supported and there's a scientific consensus behind it, that's what they need to know first, and after that, if there are valid questions or criticisms they need to know about those and who else they should talk to. They don't need, and can't use, information so heavily qualified with caveats and reservations that they don't know what the scientist really believes, or what he or she thinks should be done with the information, or why.

Being clear, being concise, leading with your conclusions, using everyday language rather than scientific jargon, showing some emotion, and giving clear and understandable examples are all essential to good communication. This is really helpful little volume that any scientist who might need or want to talk to non-scientific audiences can benefit by reading. Experts in other fields that don't routinely interact with a more general public, but might need to, can also benefit.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.