Let’s talk science (with nonscientists)

A critical part of any scientist’s life is communication. We write grants, scientific papers, and reviews, and we give presentations of our work at conferences and seminars. In fact, we love talking about our science, as anyone who ever asked us how our research is going and encouraged us to tell them more about it would quickly perceive. But while we generally feel comfortable relating the details of our work to our peers, we tend to be more hesitant to engage in communication with the general public or with policy makers, even though we know how important those conversations are. ASCB will remind you of your responsibility for science advocacy and outreach, but also empower you with the tools and opportunities to do a fabulous job at it.

Fighting Your Fears with Some Help from ASCB
We are all aware of the challenges we face when we talk with nonscientists (it is difficult even talking with scientists in a different field!). When talking with the public, we may even have to reanalyze the words we use while keeping in mind that the uninitiated may not only be unfamiliar with them, but may even have a damaging misinterpretation of their meaning. (One example I love, which I learned at a workshop by Alan Alda, concerns the word “model,” which for the average person in the street or congressperson will not conjure images of Caenorhabditis elegans or Xenopus laevis, but of Cindy Crawford or Gisele Bündchen). On the one hand, very little preexisting knowledge on our topic of study can be assumed when we talk with the layperson. On the other hand, simplifying our message while trying to make it more appealing to nonspecialized audiences can make us feel as though we are giving up to inaccuracies or half-truths, or even scarier, overblowing the significance of our claims.

And yet the challenging responsibility of talking with those that are not in our line of work but who fund us through their taxes, determine our fate through policy making, or may be the ultimate beneficiaries of our research is critical for the future of basic science. Thus, we have to dedicate some part of our always scarce time to learn the right language, create the right opportunities, and deliver the right message. This nontrivial task of advocacy and outreach should be on the to-do list of every basic scientist. The good news is that each of us does not have to do this alone. Scientific societies are a great channel to maximize the impact of our efforts toward public engagement, by providing teaching tools, by being on the alert for opportunities, and by giving continuity and branding to our efforts. If you are willing to engage in advocacy and outreach, ASCB is your best ally!

I invite you to visit the Policy & Outreach tab on the ASCB website (www.ascb.org/science-policy-public-outreach). There you will find a link to the Science Outreach section with Communication Toolkits that provide suggestions on how to reach out to the general public in a number of ways, including making use of social media and multimedia, working with the press, and discussing controversial topics. This section of the website also includes links to information about ASCB Public Engagement Grants and outreach grants from the Committee for Postdocs and Students. Also from the Policy & Outreach page, you can follow the Advocacy & Policy link to find an Advocacy Toolkit with a variety of suggestions on how to become involved in science policy advocacy. There are one-page “Be an Advocate for Science” papers that give you detailed tips on how to engage with elected officials or create on-campus policy and advocacy groups.

Have Some Fun When Talking with Non-Experts
I particularly enjoyed reading the well-selected bullet points from the ASCB website on general tips for science communication: know your audience, focus on the big picture, avoid jargon, find the best metaphors, and keep your message simple. We need to remember that our nonscientific audience will be less interested in the details of our latest experiment than in the overall direction of our work and the field in general. For some practice, why not participate in the Elevator Pitch session at our annual meeting?

My personal take is that when talking with nonscientists, in addition to telling a compelling story, it helps to connect with our audiences at a personal level, so that they become more receptive and engaged. Take a minute to say something about yourself and what your science means to you personally. I call this the empathic connection.

You should also make clear how important it is for you that they understand and see the value of your work. For a recent personal example, last winter I gave a presentation to high school students. It was one out of a series of short talks from professionals from different fields and I was “the scientist.” Although I only had 12 minutes, I decided to start with a picture of my own graduating high school year, from which I blew up the image of four of us (out of a group of about 30) that had gone on to earn science degrees. With that image of Eva at 17, I was hoping they would identify with me before I told them about microscopes and microtubules (and showed them some really cool videos). It was actually a fun experience!

Make Capitol Hill One of Your Favorite Destinations
When it comes to advocacy, nothing hits the mark like a well-orchestrated trip to Capitol Hill. I have now been able to visit our legislative houses with other members of ASCB on several occasions. Kevin Wilson, the ASCB Director of Public Policy and Media Relations, does all the groundwork for us and we get a fantastic crash course on how to speak to our politicians to make the message clear and compelling. Kevin contacts the different offices, sets up the schedules, helps us define the points that we will be bringing forward for discussion, and gives us all the background information and beautifully prepared written material that we can use to make our point and to leave behind for further consideration. Through the day, we visit the different senators’ and representatives’ offices as a small group that feels like a well-coordinated team. It is a truly wonderful experience.

One important thing that I have learned from my “Hill Day” experiences is that advocacy has to be a two-way conversation and we need to be ready to listen as well as to talk. The other is that each one of those politicians’ offices sees dozens of visitors every day, all with good causes, all asking for support/funding/legislation. Imagine yourself in a position of some power where everyone that came by was asking for a piece of the pie. What I learned is that it is good to start by showing gratitude and end by offering your service: “How can I/WE help YOU?” As individual researchers and as a scientific society, we have a lot to offer (e.g. data, expertise) and we should come across as being part of a team with common goals, prepared to play our part.

If you are jumping out of your chair right now with excitement about getting involved in your own outreach or advocacy, staff at the ASCB office can offer suggestions and walk you through your first try; contact info@ascb.org. Remember that there is an outreach and advocacy opportunity that takes as much time as you have to give.

About the Author:


Eva Nogales is professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator; and Senior Faculty Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.