Facts are not enough: skills for effective science advocacy

Science communication is a spectrum. The purpose of science communication can range from sharing data with experts in the field to explaining your job to your sixth-grade cousin. Inevitably, you will be advocating your research throughout your career. Why does your research matter to you? Why does it matter to the world? Effective communication relies on your ability to clearly explain concepts, but additional steps go into effective advocacy. You may find yourself advocating funding in front of policy makers, or advocating that your family members vaccinate their children. As scientists, we are trained to defend our data; facts and nothing but the facts. Outside of a technical context, facts are not enough to convey an important idea. When approaching someone for a one-on-one conversation to advocate science, it’s important to exercise the following skills:

William Dean at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Credit: Twitter- @DeanofChemistry

Set reasonable goals for your conversation

Advocacy occurs face-to-face and over multiple conversations. It’s unlikely you will drastically change someone’s mind in five minutes, or through a series of comments on the internet. When approaching a conversation, consider your audience and your goals. Your first conversation may not be the place to ask a science skeptic to change their opinions about GMOs, but rather a place to build a relationship and understanding. How well do you know this person? What is the take-away message, or thing you want to ask of them? Is this a policy maker you have not met before? Is this a family member you have known your whole life? Consider what’s reasonable for both you and your audience, and that small steps can be the beginning of larger changes.

Approach the conversation with empathy

Understanding can be found between the two parties that completely disagree about evolution. Consider how they learn new information, what values drive their decisions, and essentially where they are coming from. Even if you disagree, other perspectives can still be valid. It’s important to show that you are willing to find common ground. You can achieve this by validating (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/partnering-in-mental-health/201307/easing-partner-pain-six-levels-validation) their experiences and emotions, and trying to reduce your own reactive emotions if needed. For example, if someone is opposed to vaccinations, you can still agree that both of you care about the health of children.

Practice active listening

To build empathy, it’s essential to listen. Do you notice yourself thinking of questions to ask once the other person pauses, instead of listening to the person finish everything they have to say? You could be missing something important. Are you quick to shut down someone’s idea as soon as they say it? Slow down and ask yourself what you would say if you had to agree in some form. Pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, both from your audience and things you may be doing subconsciously. If someone feels as if they are not being heard, they are likely to reciprocate and stop listening to you in return.

Convey your beliefs through story

When you are in a position to have the floor, consider conveying your beliefs through a story. A narrative can translate values into action. Why is this topic important to you? Is there a connection with a strong memory, a long-held life value or goal? Can a story make this topic more accessible to your audience based on their personal experiences? You might be tempted to start by saying, “We must pay attention to climate change because atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by over 100 ppm in the past 70 years.” Now imagine how much more impactful that message could be if you started with, “Growing up, I would spend summers fishing at the lake with my grandparents. It’s so important to me that we preserve these lands because I hope to one day share them with my own grandchildren.” Not everyone knows what ppm means, or why that number matters. Yet, most everyone can relate to family values.

There’s no set protocol for being an effective advocate. Ultimately, practice makes perfect. When getting started, it’s just as important to consider your audience as it is to consider your message. What skills do you utilize in your advocacy? How do you advocate?

For further reading check out these articles:





This article is based on a series of workshops developed by Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy (ESPA) (https://sites.google.com/umich.edu/espa-umich) at the University of Michigan. Lillian Ellis adapted the Know Us Project to develop a workshop including goal-setting and empathy. Sara Wong and Seth Wiley consulted RELATE (University of Michigan) and Ashley Lakoduk (UT Southwestern) to develop an improvisation workshop for active listening. Julia Gerson adapted a narrative-focused workshop from the Union of Concerned Scientists. These activities were funded by the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) Microgrant and an American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) COMPASS Outreach Grant.

About the Author:

Sara Wong earned her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, where she studied organelle transport. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Utah, where she studies mitochondria. Email: sara.wong@biochem.utah.edu; Twitter: @sarajwong

Recommended Articles