Speakers Offer Tips on Communicating Science

Diagram created by keynote speaker and graphic facilitator Julie Stuart during the Symposium session on VASG Extension work. ©Julie Stuart/Making Ideas Visible
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Speakers Offer Tips on Communicating Science

Keynote speaker Julie Stuart talks about the graphic facilitation process during the Communicating Science Panel Discussion. ©Megan Russel/VASG

Keynote speaker Julie Stuart talks about the graphic facilitation process during the Communicating Science Panel Discussion. ©Megan Russel/VASG

By Sarah Sumoski, VIMS Graduate Student

A major discussion point among scientists is how to communicate important research implications to the public and to policy makers. How can scientists get their points across without glossing over or distorting the precious data that took so long to collect? This topic has been up for discussion year after year and for good reason—it remains a major challenge.

At the 2012 Virginia Sea Grant Project Participants Symposium, students, researchers, and other VASG partners heard insights about communicating science from a panel of speakers with different backgrounds: the artist, the policy maker, the resource manager, the researcher, even the journalist. The surprising truth?  More often than not, you can ditch the hard facts—or at least put the emphasis elsewhere.

If your motive is to voice issues and goals to policy makers, sometimes your best bet is to avoid the scientific details. Explained Heidi Geisz, a 2011 Knauss fellow with the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources: “[When] scientists come up to the Hill to testify in front of Congressmen, they have five minutes, and time and time again the gavel’s coming down and they’re mid sentence; and they’ve only worked through half of their testimony.”

Graphic facilitation produced by Julie Stuart during the Communicating Science Panel. Click on the thumbnail to view a larger image.

So what is Geisz’s lesson for taking science to the Hill? Be as brief as possible and make it count.  While you may know your data inside and out, that doesn’t make you the best candidate to testify. Geisz continued, “If we bring up a stakeholder, someone who’s used the policy, who has said this is how this is affecting my life be it good or be it bad,” the Congressmen and their staff are riveted by those stories. The stakeholders “are the constituents. They’re the voters, and [their testimony] touches someone who’s not necessarily scientifically oriented.”

When communicating to the general public, many of the same lessons apply. “Science writing from my perspective is about the scientist who is looking for the results. Looking. Not found,” said Diane Tennant, a feature writer for the Virginian–Pilot. “A lot of scientists want to have all the results in hand before they talk to me as a science writer . . . but I don’t need to have [the results] in hand to write a compelling story and get across the message that the science is important.”

In both instances it’s the story behind the science that matters: how the policy affects someone’s life or why a scientist would wake up at two in the morning to collect data. Non-scientists tend to be less interested in the detailed data, and instead, they go for a compelling story.

Susanna Priest, a communication researcher at George Mason University added to the discussion by focusing on how thinking about science communication has evolved over the past three or four decades. Current thinking, Priest explained, emphasizes context, trust, and citizen involvement. “If you want to persuade people that your point of view is worth considering, the scientific facts are simply beside the point,” she said. “They want to know who you are as a person and whether they can trust you.”

Keynote speaker and graphic facilitator Julie Stuart of Making Ideas Visible sought to inspire researchers to think outside the box when it comes to communicating with the public. She cited a variety of creative examples where drawing, film-making, and even dance have been used to convey scientific stories. Stuart also offered some practical tips for researchers to give presentations a compelling storyline and avoid confusion, remarking on how quickly terminology and jargon can muddle a point for non-scientists. “When I hear aerosol I think hairspray,” she quipped.

David Detlor Deputy Director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology pointed out that for his agency the hard facts are important, but they still have to be conveyed appropriately and with sensitivity to the policy impacts on fishing families. “Our science has to be right; it has to be relevant; it has to be timely; and it has to be respected,” he said.

So whether you’re presenting a report riddled with statistics, a 5-minute speech on a new policy, or teaching a school group waist-deep in the marsh, stop to ask yourself: Who is your audience and whether they are concerned about your data or your story. As Geisz concluded, “[I used to think] science will carry us through…and my new impression of that is not necessarily true…unless we learn how to communicate that science.”