another discipline, such as medicine, materials, or maybe electronics, but not chemistry.
Blount also talked about the public perception of science. While data from Pew Research suggest people respect scientists, she said they really do not understand what scientists do, or some of the most basic facts about science. She added, “Obviously there is that big disconnect that invites us to step in and do something about it.”
Blount talked about the approaches needed to address this. She said efforts are needed at all levels from individuals engaging one on one, or through organizations such as ACS local sections, museums, and libraries. There are also many opportunities through media sources, including newspapers, books, movies, television, radio, the Internet, and games. However, there is a lot that is unknown about what works best—what people really relate to and what has impact.
At the most basic level though, Blount pointed out that everyone has a story to tell and plenty of opportunities to tell it—whether it’s at a barbeque, a wedding, a graduation, or a family reunion. She advised, “Somebody is going to ask you what you do. Don’t get caught needing a translator.” Instead chemists need to be prepared to discuss the work they do and why they do it.
In addition, Blount said, “Think about this opportunity…. When you talk to somebody one on one you have their attention.” However, when people browse websites, it is more difficult to know how much time they spend on it or what kind of message they get from it. “But when you get their attention, take advantage of it and be ready to tell them something that is going to be meaningful to them about chemistry,” Blount added.
Mark Barteau, University of Delaware, outlined five crosscutting themes he heard. The first is the message. He said, “I think the message we should be sending is we change the way people live, and go from there.”
The second theme is about the medium. He said he came to the workshop expecting to hear a lot about new media and creative and innovative approaches, which he did. However, he heard more about how clever people will adapt quickly to these new media.
The third theme is the need for a hook to grab the attention of a reader, viewer, or museum visitor. Barteau worries that in the quest for relevance, the message becomes a little bland. For example, he highlighted the success of the TV show Myth Busters and how both kids and adults enjoy seeing things blown up on the show. At the same time, he noted that Martyn Poliakoff finds the videos of himself talking about the chemistry of a candle just as popular as the videos of him blowing things up. Poliakoff thinks those videos are more visual and exciting, hooking his audience, whereas the videos of him talking keep viewers interested. Barteau added, “We need to think about the hook and how we bait it. And again, I think there are lots of opportunities for creativity there.”
The fourth theme Barteau pointed out was about tailoring the message to suit the type of audience. For example, it was said in the workshop that the audience for museums is already self-selected or predisposed toward science and learning, so that audience will respond to a different level of communication than that required for TV viewers.
The last theme Barteau discussed was about the messengers—chemical professionals. Barteau said the academic community is “waking up to the idea of the need to mentor our students and their professional careers.” Funding agencies are also putting more pressure on faculty to improve how they mentor their students. However, he thinks faculty are not well equipped to do this. For them, “mentoring means how to write a proposal, how to write a scientific paper, how to give a talk at an ACS meeting.” It does not typically involve how to talk to the press or a boss when there are only 5 minutes available. He added that the biggest challenge in improving communications training for scientists and engineers is finding qualified people in the universities to do it.
Do Chemists Need to Get Out More?
Bill Carroll highlighted something Deborah Illman discussed in her presentation earlier in the day. Most of her graduate students (in the sciences) admitted they have essentially no, or very little, contact with nonscientists on a daily basis. Carroll posed the question, “Do chemists need to get out more?” Nancy Blount responded that she was astounded by Illman’s findings, and thinks students need to be motivated by their professors to think about more than just research activities.
Ucko said that the human side of science is often missing. He thinks it would be helpful to show more of the human side in both the formal and the informal science learning environments.
At the same time, there have been successes. For example, Bill Carroll noted that scienceblogs.com seems to do a good job finding articulate and funny scientists who comment online, and asked Joy Moore about where she finds them. Moore said the blogosphere draws writers to the website, and “allows people who are good communicators and who have a personality that goes along with their research to make themselves known and then gain their own audiences.” This visibility shows other scientists that science blogging is okay, and the interaction between the bloggers and the readers opens up a dialogue. She added, “We know that there are cool, interesting human beings out there doing research, and we just need to get that message out to the public more.”