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.