Training Scientists for Media Encounters

By Chris Mooney | March 27, 2009 11:29 am

A recent editorial in Science by Christopher Reddy–the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution–has gotten me thinking (hat tip Bioephemera for calling the piece to my attention). Entitled “Scientist Citizens,” the piece makes three major points: 1) The “outreach” component of research grants awarded by federal agencies usually gets short shrift; 2) similarly, in university tenure determinations, “service” is supposed to be a key consideration, but in practice is usually more or less ignored; 3) young scientists ought to receive communication and media training, but rarely do. All of these points, for Reddy, merge together into a grand argument for why we need “scientist citizens” who are ready and equipped to bring knowledge of their work to the public.

I’m intrigued by point 3 in particular. I’ve done some of this training myself–at Caltech and at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last year, I did some teaching, geared towards scientist graduate students, about the media. These sessions were a total blast, and the highlight was always the part in which I played Stephen Colbert and made the scientists sit in a chair and explain their work, while I asked off-the-wall questions. Questions like, how will nanotechnology make my jeans fit better? Are mouse models attractive? And so forth. I’ll be doing more of this sort of training this year, and along with my fantastic coblogger Sheril, we’re hoping to develop a one- or two-day curriculum that we can export; indeed, we’re already halfway there.

But the question is, how much interest is there in such programs, and to what extent do they already exist? Reddy writes the following:

At Stockholm University, all new Ph.D. students in environmental and climate sciences are now offered training in speaking with the media. Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences has launched an innovative program to train graduate students in similar skills. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution offered a graduate student course co-taught by scientists and journalists called “How Not to Write for Peer-Reviewed Journals: Talking to Everybody Else.” For more established scientists, professional programs exist: The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, for example, has provided media training to a growing nucleus of more than 100 mid-career environmental scientists.

Okay, so there’s some stuff out there–and I’m sure there’s even more than this; in fact, I know of other examples than this (see e.g. here). But I don’t have an answer to the following question: How systematically has scientist communication training pervaded scientific institutions and universities, and what are the hurdles to its better establishment?

I’m in 100 percent agreement with Reddy’s editorial. Moreover, at least done properly, there is nothing more fun than a science communication seminar. But what do we have to do in order to make sure that every scientist going through his/her training gets the opportunity to take one? And for that matter–should such courses (or workshops) even be a requirement?

Given the way science gets handled in the media today, and the fact that many scientists simply aren’t ready for that inevitable press call, I think I could make a strong case that they should be.

Comments (7)

  1. Jeffrey Beall

    At my university, “service” chiefly means committee work, and we are advised, wisely, I think, to focus on research while on tenure track. The tenure committee understands this, and faculty know that they can ramp up their service after they establish themselves in their fields and earn tenure.

  2. I went through the Scripps Inst. Oceanography training a couple years ago (alas, not with you guys!) and found it very useful. It is part of what inspired me to get involved in blogging & online outreach. Other students who have been through that program have gotten involved in traditional media outlets, such as writing an online column for the local paper. However, this attitude has not pervaded the institution as a whole. Too much outreach (never mind online outreach!) is still looked down upon as taking time away from research.

  3. I don’t think such training has pervaded the academic milieu so you will be performing a valuable service. To be honest I don’t think we need a whole lot of scientists who are good at talking to the media. A handful of outstanding people should suffice. Sadly we don’t even have these.

    On the other hand, based on my own experience I have seen grad students quite eager to pitch their ideas in non-scientific language especially at the beginning of grad school. Ironically this often reflects a lack of accuracy on their part. Unfortunately (or fortunately) as they progress, their language is hammered more and more into evolving into technical-speak, an essential quality for a scientist but a not very helpful quality for a science communicator or writer. To this extent I think I and some grad students I know have benefited from blogging; we can gain the dual benefits of getting trained by our advisors to use scientific language in our publications and training ourselves to use non-technical and yet accurate language on our blogs.

    My message to science grad students: start blogging! It will definitely help.

  4. I’m so glad you and Sheril are working on this problem! I think most science grad students would be enthusiastic to experience such training, while the media (and public!) would be happy to have more communicative scientists. The obstacle is really institutional, in that communications training is not seen as an essential part of a scientist’s toolkit and therefore peripheral to graduate studies. I’m not optimistic that attitude will change anytime soon, but perhaps you can work around the resistance, if the communications training isn’t displacing a semester of research or coursework. . .

  5. As a grad student, I would love to see more of this kind of training made available. I often feel that I get bogged down by all the technical jargon involved in my field of study and struggle to relay that information in “lay language” without sounding condescending. I believe it is of utmost importance to keep our communication lines open with the media and the public to reduce the rate of misinterpretation of research and perhaps better address ethical issues surrounding various areas of research.

    Where can I sign up?

  6. Thanks everybody. I wish I could say, go here to sign up…that’s precisely the problem. All I’ll be able to do is give particular dates where I’m doing this kind of training, and there will be at most (for the time being) a few a year, in particular locations. I’m interested in suggestions for how to expand…

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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