Do Scientists Want (or Need) Media Training?

By Chris Mooney | May 23, 2010 4:14 pm

Sagan TimeTomorrow at MIT, I’ll be giving a four hour “boot camp” on science communication to a group of graduate students and other interested parties. The session begins with an overview of the “theory” of science communication–why we must do it better, what the obstacles are, and how a changing media environment makes it much tougher than it was during the era when the dude at right was so popular (the same era when the dude at *top* right was about to deregulate the media…).

Then, the session goes into a media “how to”–rules for interacting with journalists, media do’s and don’ts, and an overview of various key communication “technologies,” such as framing. Finally, it ends with a role playing in which the scientists get to try out their chops in a Colbert-style interview, and see if they can stay on message while traversing the very rockiest of media seas.

I get the sense there is an increasing demand for this kind of training, which is often not provided in the standard science graduate curriculum. The hunger seems especially strong among the younger set of scientists.

Why? Well, consider the write up for another all day sci comm boot camp I did at Princeton recently, sponsored by the Center for Complex Materials. I think it captures why scientists increasingly want to know about the workings of the media:

These days, amid ongoing media controversies over climate change, the teaching of evolution, the safety of vaccines, and many other scientific topics, researchers are increasingly asking themselves questions like these: Should I be doing more to communicate about my work to the public? And if so, how should I go about preparing for media encounters—and what should I be ready to say?

In this daylong science communication workshop these questions will be answered. By the end of the day, scientists will have learned not only how to interact with and present themselves to the press, but also how to be ready for a full scale media crisis—because you never know when one is going to hit. (Just ask the scientists at the center of “ClimateGate” late last year.)

Science journalist Chris Mooney will introduce the group to the bewildering and ever-changing mediasphere for science–one in which scientific content in newspapers is vanishing even as science blogs and online media are booming. How do you navigate this media maelstrom and know which journalists to trust, and which to avoid? What kind of message should you design to convey information about your work, and what kind of image should you project? What kind of language should you use—and absolutely avoid? What are modern examples of successful science communication—and cases of abject failures?

These sci comm sessions tend to be pretty packed, and they’re quite a lot of fun. But with some exceptions–like the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where “communications week” is a standard feature of Jeremy Jackson’s summer long “Introduction to Marine Biodiversity and Conservation” class, and Randy Olson and I both teach–such content isn’t yet part of the institutional structure of higher level science education.

The question is, should it be? I would argue strongly in the affirmative.

And how can we make that happen? Well, more funding from outlets like the National Science Foundation would be a good idea. So would rejiggering institutional priorities to put media training squarely into the curriculum. In the meantime, I suspect it will be popping up more and more on an ad hoc basis on various campuses, wherever a group of graduate students, or one or more sympathetic faculty or staff, feel a crying need for it….

Comments (22)

  1. PHYSICS MSC

    Frauds at work.

    Science is not about PR, Mooney.

    You and your ilk make me feel both ill, and embarassed to say I am a scientist.

    You should go crawl back under your rock.

  2. My alma mater, CalTech, now makes it an undergraduate requirement to take classes dealing with both oral and written scientific presentations. While most disciplines provide topics of specific interest – papers for a journal or oral presentation at a conference – the Humanities division does offer a course dealing with more mass media approaches to presenting science.

    This is in sharp contrast to what I experienced 30 years or so ago where we pretty much had to learn about these things on the job. I still remember the horror of my first journal club in graduate school.

    So some universities seem to be getting the message that more training in written and oral skills is necessary for a modern scientific education. Perhaps it would then be a simple matter to include a few hours dealing with the mass media.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Richard,
    I actually taught at Caltech on this in 2008…

    http://www.scienceprogress.org/2008/07/paradigm-sheep/

    seems like the students still wanted more than they were getting, it was very well attended….

  4. I completely agree that we need more science communication education in our education system and I am excited to hear about your boot camp, Chris! As an undergraduate in engineering, I was required to take an oral communication course and satisfy many writing requirements. But, I did not have the opportunity to really dive into the communication of science to different groups (aka non-engineers) – my communications class was titled something like “Interpersonal Communication Competence.”

    NSF recently did a workshop at my current school, UT Austin. It received a lot of positive feedback, but unfortunately was held at a time when many graduate students (undergrads were not on the mailing list) were not able to come due to classes and other commitments. Fingers crossed on them doing something similar very soon!

  5. An interesting post, Chris. I’m a media trainer and former reporter, so I’m obviously biased in favor of training and very aware of how poorly prepared many scientists are to discuss these broad issues. There’s no question that science is losing the public relations battle, so it’ss interesting to me to still find scientists like the poster above who obviously believe that learning to communicate the science somehow harms the science. Yes, those who apply science commercially don’t suffer from such delusions, and they’re a good many of my clients. Others however, come to understand the real world of how science in funded only after long, losing struggles. Public support for science, essential to that funding, isn’t something to be scorned–and that can only happen when scientists learn how to talk to non-scientists. I’m glad someone is out there fighting the good fight.

  6. Jackson

    It’s great that Chis sees the big interest in communication. This is great.

    Einstein’s “Formula for Success” was A=x+y+z
    A=success
    x=work y = play
    z=keeping your mouth shut

    My understanding is that this was based on his experiences being interviewed by the media and misquoted — but he was partly being facetious and over time made great use of his communication skills.

  7. Mike Lemonick

    As it happens, I’m doing a communication-for-scientists workshop today, at Cold Spring Harbor Lab. Naturally, I think this is a good thing for scientists to do, for both selfish and altruistic reasons.

    But I want to raise a point that’s likely to be highly controversial. What exactly is the evidence that Carl Sagan achieved anything lasting with his popularization? Are there any hard data to suggest that Americans were generally more knowledgeable about or interested in science thanks to him?

    Just asking. As science communicators, we should presumably want to see the evidence, not just claim that it’s true because it feels like it must be true. I’m guessing that the vast majority of the public remembers just two things about Sagan, only one of which is true: that he had a funny voice, and that he said “billions and billions” a lot.

  8. John Kotcher

    Chris–The title of this post is a great question. And unfortunately nobody seems to have done a systematic assessment of the attitudes that US scientists and engineers have toward public engagement.

    Not surprisingly, the UK is way ahead of this on this. Not only has the Royal Society conducted a thorough survey of the attitudes and perceptions that British scientists have toward public engagement, the UK Dept. of Business and Innovation Skills (BIS) has conducted a major assessment of public engagement with science, including a focus on communications training for scientists.

    It’s a shame that analogous institutions in the US aren’t asking the same questions.

    Here’s a link to the Royal Society report: http://www.peoplescienceandpolicy.com/projects/survey_scientists.php

    And the Dept. of BIS  report: http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/News/ReportsandPublications/_scienceforall.htm

  9. John Kwok

    Chris,

    Am most appreciative of Mike’s interest in wondering just how effective Sagan was.
    Indeed, as I noted in my Amazon.com review of “Unscientific America”, I think Sagan’s importance as a science communicator pales in comparison to Stephen Jay Gould’s own extensive contributions. And both Sagan and Gould may be running behind that of E. O. Wilson”s.

    You need to have writing teachers as effective as Frank McCourt, for example, that can encourage and train those who are scientists (or in the midst of becoming ones) and are interested in communicating effectively with the public. Such training shouldn’t include how one can cope with a Stephen Colbert-type interview, but instead, interviews of the kind often practiced by the likes of Bill Moyers and Jim Lehrer. While I find your goal to be commendable, are you embarking on an effort which emphasizes syle over content? If that’s the result, then I can’t see how productive this will be in trying to educate the public on scientific issues and why they are important to the general populace.

  10. I don’t think that science media training means spin. A lot of it is just putting things into context so that people have a frame of reference to understand something new or complex.

    Chris I work with a large-scale international particle astrophysics project. Unlike stem cell, bioenergy, or climate change, we don’t need to communicate anything controversial…it’s more a matter of how to make the research engaging and how to communicate the value of fundamental research.

    Any recommendations?

  11. Nullius in Verba

    “There’s no question that science is losing the public relations battle, so it’ss interesting to me to still find scientists like the poster above who obviously believe that learning to communicate the science somehow harms the science.”

    I think he’s fine with communicating the science, what he’s probably choking on is what scientists would call the ‘intrinsic angular momentum’.

    For a lot of people, it’s the fact that certain scientists look and act like they’ve attended a media course that damages trust in them. Releasing scientific results at press conferences instead of journals or conferences, so the details needed to check/challenge it are unavailable until after the story has passed through the news cycle, that sort of thing.

  12. SLC

    Re PHYSICS MSC @ #1

    Here’s another commentary on Mr. Mooneys’ communication skills from one of his non-admirers,.

    http://scienceblogs.com/erv/2010/05/attn_mit_kids_how_to_communica.php

  13. Chris Mooney

    Thanks for all the comments. several require and deserve more elaboration — as does the point, how on earth could this possibly be controversial? So I’ll say more soon…

  14. TTT

    I’m really tired of the notion that if only we could duplicate Sagan’s techniques everything would be fine. Even when Sagan was alive, using Sagan’s techniques, everything wasn’t fine. This rosy-glasses approach is what I’m used to seeing from conservatives about Reagan–”we are lost, unless we find someone exactly like him!”

  15. John Kwok

    @ SLC -

    Thanks for the link to Abbie’s latest. I thought she had something profound to say, but then her thread deteriorated into a rather lengthy digression on the Pluto affair. As for Chris’s desire to have more Carl Sagans of science, I think they exist already in the form of
    Bronx Science alumni Lawrence Krauss and Neil de Grasse Tyson, and Stuyvesant High School alumni Brian Greene, Lisa Randall and Adam Summer. Then of course you have AMNH paleobiologists Niles Eldredge, Mark Norell and Michael Novacek. And I am just merely scratching the surface.

    Hopefully Chris will address some of the criticisms I stated earlier, such as the importance of having truly effective writing teachers (of which Frank McCourt may be among the most famous recent examples) and a commitment to report scientific research accurately without resorting to shameless self promotion or other superficial activities which do not convey anything about the wonder and importance and relevance of modern science to contemporary world civilization.

  16. Hopefully Chris will address some of the criticisms I stated earlier, such as the importance of having truly effective writing teachers (of which Frank McCourt may be among the most famous recent examples) and a commitment to report scientific research accurately without resorting to shameless self promotion or other superficial activities which do not convey anything about the wonder and importance and relevance of modern science to contemporary world civilization.

    John,
    I think you hit an important point, circling back to Commenter #1. I believe s/he is probably still in the prevalent school of thought amongst scientists that ANY discussion of science outside of the peer-reviewed literature and annual professional society meetings falls into your category of “shameless self-promotion.” See, Carl Sagan communicated the wonder of science really well to the public – Cosmos isstillone of my all-time favorite PBS shows, and I gave the book to my oldest daughter when she turned 13. He just didn’t confine his communication to the narrowest slice possible of the scientific realm – and that’s what makes our scientist colleague at #1 so unfcomfortable.

  17. John Kwok

    @ Philip H. -

    In college I was keenly aware of the jealousy felt toward Sagan by two professors of planetary geology at my undergraduate alma mater. One noted with ample pride how they
    (they being the two scientists and professors of engineering at my alma mater) had upstaged Sagan when they created the cameras and imaging system for the Viking Lander.
    I think Sagan did indulge in some of that “shameless self promotion” and so, might I add, other prominent scientists, such as, for example, Stephen Jay Gould. But being a “celebrity” doesn’t mean that one is effective with regards to communicating science to the general public. One could make a most persuasive case that Gould (via his criticism of racially biased IQ testing), E. O. Wilson (conservation biology) and Ken Miller (via his ample work on behalf of emphasizing the teaching of evolution, not creationism, in American high school science classrooms) have been far more effective in influencing public opinion than Sagan ever did.

    Again, this raises my concern that Chris may be more interested in the superficiality of scientific communication – as indicated by his emphasis on Colbert Report-styled interviewing – than on whether professional scientists are affecting public opinion when they note that there is no “debate” between evolution and creationism or explain why the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming is both substantial and conclusive.

  18. a dood

    I’m down with Carl Sagan

  19. Kirth Gersen

    As a scientist and former science educator, I do have an question — namely, how much of the disconnect is from poor communication on the part of scientists, vs. poor comprehension on the part of the public? Most high school science classes are taught by non-scientists — by people with degrees in education, for example. As a result, the general public doesn’t understand enough basic science to have any idea what most research scientists are even working on, much less what the ramifications are. No amount of tact and eruditon on the scientists’ part can overcome this lack of basic education.

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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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