“Don’t get caught needing a translator!”
Four workshop participants, Joy Moore of Seed Media, David Ucko from the National Science Foundation, Nancy Blount with the American Chemical Society, and Mark Barteau at the University of Delaware were asked to provide closing comments. Chosen for their diverse perspectives, each panelist discussed what they heard during the workshop and what some next steps might be. The panel comments were followed by an open discussion period where all workshop participants were given the opportunity to respond to the panelists and raise additional issues brought up during the workshop.
Joy Moore was struck by the gap between public understanding of chemistry and the ability or inability of chemists to explain what they do. She said that the most successful examples of overcoming this gap occur when chemistry is related to things in daily life, such as a museum exhibit, and when scientists explain what they do in their own words, as is done in science blogging.
Another take-away message was the need to highlight the chemistry behind larger societal problems. There are also various ways to present information to children, such as video games, museum exhibits, and activities on the Internet, and parents may need to be made more aware of the resources for informal learning outside of school.
David Ucko suggested that developing a strategic plan could help focus the goals for communicating chemistry. It was not clear to him if the goal is learning, public relations, advocacy, or some combination of all three. At the same time, he pointed out that this topic is not new. Efforts to expose more people to chemistry have been highlighted on several occasions in the past. For example, an American Chemical Society (ACS) Committee on Public Understanding of Chemistry wrote a report published in 1971 titled Chemistry for Citizens.1 Various efforts followed. Chemist Richard Zare, as Chair of the National Science Board, wrote an article in 1996 titled “Where Is the Chemistry in Science Museums?”2
Chemists have been wrestling with this topic for a long time. Those who want to pursue informal educational activities in chemistry could look to the evidence base that has been gathered since those earlier efforts and the lessons that have been learned. Ucko said it would be useful for someone to do a synthesis of the lessons learned from these past efforts, such as from the research that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and others have funded on learning chemistry. He said that most of it has probably been on the formal side, but there are some valuable lessons to be learned.
Nancy Blount, American Chemical Society, pointed out that there so many audiences to reach and all have different needs. There is also so much that is unknown about how best to reach those audiences. She heard a lot of people at the workshop speak about the challenges of getting chemistry to the forefront of people’s minds, from the invisible to the visible. She said when chemistry gets to the point of being visible, it often crosses a line where it becomes the prize of
1For more information, see R.L. Wolfgang.1971. Chemistry for citizens. Journal of Chemical Education 4 (1): 22.
2R. Zare. 1996. Where is the Chemistry in Science Museums? Journal of Chemical Education. 73:A198. Available online at http://jchemed.chem.wisc.edu/journal/issues/1996/sep/absA198.html (accessed April 12, 2011).
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.”
Bill Carroll asked Mark Barteau, from his position in academia, to comment on whether there is a need for a “communications competency requirement particularly in a graduate program?”
Barteau said that as a department chair, he cannot remember an industrial advisory board meeting of his department that did not involve a discussion about the communications deficiencies of their students. He responded yes to Carroll’s question, but also emphasized the need to make it fun and interesting. He said “Running [students] through a required communications or technical writing course may not be the way to go.” On the other hand, his university has an NSF Integrative Graduate Education, Research, and Training program, and the students are the ones driving the outreach to the community. He said it would be useful to systematize the outreach or at least collect information about it in a way that would be valuable to others and spawn more imitation.
Bill Carroll said he thinks there is a convergence between Deborah Illman’s thoughts and the ACS Chemistry Ambassador’s approach. That is, it is important to get to say what is most important first, rather than burying it somewhere in the article or conversation.
Nancy Blount added that when scientists talk about their research, they tend to focus on giving all the background technical details first, which turns most nonscientists off. She reiterated, “What we all have in common is we are all people.” It can be much more impactful for the scientists to start with the human side of the story—who are they? Where do they come from? How did they get interested in science and their particular area of research? “Each one of us is the human side of some story.”
In today’s age, however, the attention span of most people is short, so “you need to have a really short sound bite that is going to hook them and get their attention, and give them a chance to ask you more.”
Overcoming Negative Stereotypes on TV
Many participants discussed their dissatisfaction with how chemists and chemistry are shown on TV. For example, Neil Gussman, from the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), commented on how his daughters’ views of chemistry are strongly affected by the Nickelodeon television show they watched in the late 1990s called The Secret Life of Alex Mack 3 which painted a very negative and unrealistic picture of chemicals and chemical industry. In the show, an unmarked truck from a chemical company spills an unnamed brown liquid on a girl in junior high named Alex Mack. The brown liquid gives Mack the ability to turn into a puddle of mercury at will. The villain of the show was a security guard at the chemical company, who spent the four years’ worth of episodes of the show trying to catch Alex Mack because she was violating the security of his chemical company. Alex Mack’s parents worked for the chemical company, but they were totally unaware of what was going on. Gussman said if that is the image of chemistry,4 what can be done to dig out of that hole and overcome the negative stereotypes?
Ruth Woodall highlighted Bill Nye the Science Guy as a positive image for science in the public media. He was on CNN the previous night talking about possible solutions for cleaning up the BP oil spill.5 She said that he was a very useful resource when she was a science teacher. Kids really enjoyed watching him. She called him her hero, because of the ability he has to connect with people of all ages.
Joy Moore responded to the comment about Alex Mack that the perception of industry versus academic scientists is a real problem. She said, “There is a huge, immediate distrust of scientists who work for companies, as opposed to scientists who work for academia. And it is just obviously unfair and wrong.”
Jim Solyst then posed the question, “How do you take creative people who are in communications and give them the necessary guidance or education to do it a bit better than what we see on Alex Mack?”
Mark Barteau responded, “One of the problems is figuring out how to do that without putting them through a 4-year bachelor’s degree.” He said that one thing they did at Delaware recently was hold an energy workshop for the media. They discussed “key things you need to have in mind, and a few questions you ought to ask everybody, whether they are selling clean coal or wind power. Just here are the key questions you should always ask.”
Steve Lyons then highlighted a couple of resources to follow up on the idea of bringing creative people (who are not chemists) in to help communicate chemistry. He said that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has a science-writing program for journalists and scientists. Lyons participated in a science-writing program called the Macy Fellowship in Science Broadcast Journalism. He said, “The idea was to take people who had already written about science, either articles or books, and train them in broadcasting. They brought us to Boston and trained us in radio and film and television for a year, and then sort of set us free and saw what we could do.”
Lyons said, “It might be possible to develop a fellowship in chemistry communication that is similar to that—that takes creative people who have shown expertise or flair in some kind of communication field and bring them to a central
4In this document, chemistry is defined as the science of composition, structure, and properties of substances (chemicals) and the changes they undergo.
location and train them in how to communicate chemistry and send them out into the world.”
Jim Solyst thought that was an excellent idea, and suggested that Mark Grieps’s work on movies and the examples he showed in the workshop would be great resources for reaching out to screenwriters, to show them how science and chemistry can work on the screen. If screenwriters can be convinced that people are interested in subjects such as chemistry when presented in an interesting and compelling way, more movies with chemistry content might be made.
Jeannette Brown shared one idea she implemented in the past to increase coverage of chemistry in the media. She said that in her role as a publicity person for her ACS local section, she invited a reporter to attend a talk at one of the regular local section meetings for background material on a hot political topic. She has also learned ways to communicate chemistry effectively as a member of the Science Writers organization. She suggested that maybe the ACS could do a session on chemistry at the Science Writer’s Conference.
Writing for Life
Deborah Illman commented that one of the things she has observed about existing communication and writing training for undergraduate chemistry students in the universities across the country is the focus on writing lab reports and term papers. She has tried to interest people in something she calls “writing for life,” which involves writing for learning in informal and formal environments, such as communicating science to policy makers, journalists, the PTA, or the neighbor next door. She has not had success conveying that message though. She said, “I think that on a national scale, with a call for preparation for chemists and scientists generally to communicate with broader audiences, and a requirement of funders for grant recipients to show how they are going to do that, I think we have to mount a major national campaign to reach into the undergraduate curriculum and the graduate curriculum and provide some major resources and guidance, and to give it a priority for these kinds of communication genres in writing for life.”
David Ucko responded that “I just want to remind people that this is just one piece of this huge puzzle that we are dealing with here, this tapestry or web or ecology of lifelong learning.” In addition to thinking about the professional development of scientists and the professional development of media, it would be beneficial to also create regional collaborations to connect all the different pieces, so that they can support each other, provide a structure to bring in others, and reach some common outcomes.
Trish Baisden described how she recently spent 3 years in Washington, D.C., on an assignment and had to learn really quickly how to talk to people there, because they only had a short amount of time to listen. She noted that this is very different from what was expected during her scientific training. Scientists tend to focus on providing all the details and being very accurate. They are not comfortable with generalizing or leaving out important details. Sometimes at her lab they bring in technical writers to help communicate research results to general audiences. She said, “The technical writers do a great job, and then the scientists [say] yes but, and then they start adding detail. Pretty soon you take an article that was a fun 2-page article, and by the time we get all the detail that makes it absolutely correct from the scientific point of view it is 10 pages and nobody wants to read it.”
Baisden asked about how to bridge the gap between the two: “How do we talk about what we do in a way that it may not be absolutely correct and have all the details, but it gets the point across, it gets the interest across?” She asked Deborah Illman, “When you got the technical writer talking to the scientists, how do you get them so the technical guy will kind of let up a little and the technical writer will give in a little, and you end up with a good product?”
Illman responded that it is helpful to sensitize scientists to the needs of broader audiences, through the types of activities she does in her course. She believes it is valuable to provide some training on communicating to broader audiences in undergraduate and graduate courses, even if it involves just a few credits. The training would be useful to the students in many settings, including outreach to museums, in the policy arena, and in industry, to management. It would be beneficial for students to be instructed in writing for life and general audiences, instead of simply learning how to write term papers.
Tolerable Level of Inaccuracy
Bob Hone commented that “science museums and the people who work in science museums interact with the public directly, so they have a really clear idea of what is going to work and what is not going to work.” He said when working on a project for a science museum, they talk about what they call “the tolerable level of inaccuracy.” As concepts are simplified, at some level it will end up being inaccurate to a scientist. He said it is necessary to think about the duration of the experience the person is going to have with the content. It may only be few minutes, which is not a lot of time to convey all the details.
David Ucko agreed with Hone. He emphasized that there are people who are experts in being intermediaries between the public, the science, and the scientists; that is what educators in the science museums and many other informal learning spheres do for a living. He strongly encourages scientists to interact with those people to learn from their knowledge and experience.
Cathy Conrad from St. Mary’s University commented that there is a lot of interesting discussion going on about how “the medium is the message”; that the content and key ideas are influenced by the communications media such as video,
radio, museums, and so forth. However, she said there is still a need to have a fundamental message, idea, or concept that is independent from the media. It was not clear to her, from the discussions at this workshop, what exactly those are for chemistry.
Nancy Blount shared some thoughts from the perspective of the American Chemical Society (ACS). She said that the ACS vision is “improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.” ACS tries to integrate that into a lot of its literature and speeches. ACS also emphasizes that chemists are problem solvers and that chemistry is solving global challenges. This provides a platform to talk about important topics such as climate, clean water, and sufficient food supplies.
Ucko commented that in the case of learning, the message and the approach needed may be very different. For example, it depends where the person is and what he or she is interested in. He provided a website created by the Exploratorium6 called The Accidental Scientist,7 which focuses on the science of cooking. The museum does not rely on people going to the Exploratorium to find that site, but rather on people finding it through a cooking site. The link to the website is located on many cooking sites, because people who are interested in cooking gravitate to those types of websites. Then they can find the information on the science behind the cooking if they are interested. Ucko described it as a backdoor into the science. There is not a particular message, but it is providing the science as needed when people are most interested.
Teresa Fryberger commented that she agreed with the comment about the message that “we really need to think about why we are communicating, and who we need to communicate to.” Having a strategy is important, because there are so many messages to communicate and so many audiences to communicate to.
Mark Barteau stated that one of the hardest things to teach students and young faculty is how to explain research results as they seek research funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation or the Dreyfus Foundation. He said, “You don’t start with: I’m doing great stuff you should give me money.” Instead, they should focus on “I’m doing great stuff that is really important to something you care about, and this is what I can do and this is why you should give me money. You would be surprised at how bad we are at getting that message across,” added Barteau.
Blount agreed with Barteau’s remarks. She said ACS works with individuals to help them with their elevator speeches, such as working with Illman’s students in the writing workshop. Students were asked to give a 90-second recap of what their work was about, a simulated radio interview. For example, a couple of the students were working on solar cells, but solar energy never came out in the interview. Instead the students focused on the details of what they were doing. She noted that a high level view needs to be given to provide a common level of understanding and connection with the other person. The students may not solve solar energy today, but the work they do may contribute towards that goal.
Jeanette Brown said that one theme of National Chemistry Week was putting a “face on chemistry.” She also highlighted the importance of participating in street festivals and community events, where chemists can make that human connection. She said, “I am really going to go back now and try to get my whole executive committee to go out and spend an hour on a street fair talking to the public there and putting a face on chemistry. These are people who have children, they have families, they live in your community, et cetera—that is the chemistry ambassador program.”
Steve Lyons said that he is a member of the AAAS Committee on Public Understanding of Science, and one of the topics its members have talked quite a bit about in the last couple of years is the idea that reaching out to the public is something that is actively discouraged by the scientific community and, if you try to do it, you are jeopardizing your career. He said, “I just wonder if the assembled chemists here could confirm whether that, in fact, is a problem in the chemistry community.”
Nancy Blount noted that it is not completely true—for example ACS actively encourages and supports many chemists who engage in community outreach, such as National Lab Day in 2010, Earth Day, and National Chemistry Week. At National Lab Day last year (the first year it was held), 600 people identified themselves as chemists and participated in outreach.
Deborah Illman commented on the culture that discourages public communication of science. She said, “Over the years, I have had many science graduate students come to take my science writing classes, and in a hushed tone they whispered to me, ‘Don’t tell my adviser I am taking this class.’ It is perceived as a distraction, it is perceived as a waste of an investigator’s effort to be training a grad student to divert their attention to public communication of science instead of becoming the clone that goes into a strictly academic career.”
“I have encountered this time and time again,” Illman said. “I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon that came out, I think in 1977, where two people who look like old tenants [are] sitting in what looks like Bagley Hall on my campus, the chemistry building before it was remodeled. And one of them is saying to the other, ‘One of the things I will say for us, at least we never stooped to popularizing science.’” She ended, “The sentiment is alive and well at least at my university.”
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.