Steve Lyons commented: “Maybe part of the solution is to try to address changing the culture and encouraging outreach instead of discouraging it. It is perhaps something the Dreyfus Foundation or some other funder might want to support.” He asked David Ucko to comment on how the National Science Foundation is encouraging change through its funding policies of this kind of outreach.
Ucko said the Communicating Research to Public Audiences program8 that he mentioned the previous day is specifically geared toward doing that. The program provides awards to practicing scientists who have an active NSF research grant. He said it provides up to $200,000 to do some kind of activity geared to the public, such as working with a museum on an exhibit, or doing some media project. He said that it is specifically designed to communicate research to public audiences.
Ucko also said that the NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs holds workshops across the country for scientists, to encourage them to assess other channels—to take videos that scientists produce and other kinds of communication pieces and put them on a national stage. Ucko said NSF overall, and the Informal Science Education division in particular, work very hard on that.
Barteau commented how he and many others were brought up with the idea that the publication by press release was not appropriate. He said part of the issue today is just the pressure on faculty time to write proposals and seek research funding. Barteau also noted that the well-intentioned NSF broader-impact criterion has resulted in “forced outreach without resources assistance or accountability.” Another issue is the charlatans, or the scientists who oversell their research results. He said, “It is a multidimensional problem. But in general if we could get more responsible adults communicating more effectively with appropriate support and guidance and training to do that, that would be good.”
Trish Baisden agreed. She said, “We [chemists] are uncomfortable talking to the press because we are not trained, we don’t have the tools. Therefore we try to avoid it at all costs. It is a distraction; it keeps us from doing things.” She cautioned that sometimes talking to the press can also cause more harm than good. For example, in the 1980s there was a big announcement about the discovery of cold fusion, and the discovery turned out to be false. She said, “We announced cold fusion; only to really look stupid.” This has instilled fear in doing a press release. Instead, chemists tend to want to have their results peer reviewed and in the scientific literature a while before announcing the results more broadly.
Joel Rosenberg from Lawrence Hall of Science agreed that more needs to be done to prepare future faculty to be better communicators with the public. He said, “Chemistry becomes unpalatable to so many people because it is abstract.” It tends to be too focused on balancing equations rather than practical problem solving.
Rosenberg added this is not unique to chemistry though. He said, “I work in the informal [education] world mostly, and there is also a failure in the informal world to want to take on real problem solving.” For example, science museums tend to avoid more controversial topics. They want to stay neutral. They will say, “Here is the black lung, we are not saying don’t smoke, we are just saying look at it and make your own decision.” Similarly, for chemists it seems that they want to say, “Here is a description of a problem, but we are not saying what you should do about it.” He thinks that results in chemistry being blamed for the problem, instead of being part of the solution.
Patricia Thiel from Iowa State University ended the discussion on a more positive note. She has two teenage daughters in high school, who are both interested in science, and she sees the teachers in her kids’ high school making a lot of effort to incorporate presentations and writing requirements into classes. She also sees her colleagues on the faculty of the university making significant efforts to do that as well. While there is certainly room for improvement, she said many educators are putting in the effort to improve the communication skills of their students.