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Wanted: Articulate Scientists

Albert Einstein's wife, Elsa--a stranger to science--once implored her husband to explain his research to her: "Couldn't you tell me a little about your work? People talk a lot about it, and I appear so stupid when I say I know nothing." In response, Einstein struggled briefly to simplify his ideas but then got flippant. Inform them that "you know all about it but can't tell them, as it is a great secret!" he advised his wife.

Einstein's halfhearted, if amusing, response to his wife's request typifies many scientists' unwillingness or inability to explain their work to the uninitiated. In a 1997 speech, Neal Lane, then director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), proclaimed, "The reality is, the general public believes that we scientists do want our work to be a great secret!" Read: Today's scientists do more to confirm the stereotype of the uncommunicative calculator-toting nerd than to popularize or win funding for science.

But fortunately more and more scientists are losing their reticence and learning how to reach wider audiences. This article outlines the benefits you can realize by articulating your science clearly and succinctly; next time, we'll look at how and why several academic and government institutions as well as some publications are encouraging this trend.

What's in it for me?

You're probably already taxed to the max by other responsibilities. So why should you make the extra effort to improve your communication skills? Because doing so will help you do many things:

Win funding

Clear and succinct grant applications are usually the most compelling, says an NSF grant reviewer. Miles Roberts, deputy head of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Conservation Biology, agrees, exhorting scientists to practice pitching proposals in 3 minutes or less. "Act like your funding depends on it," he warns, "because it does."

Get jobs

Scientists who have good communication skills have a distinct advantage over their less communicative colleagues when they compete for scarce tenure-track positions or for industry and government jobs that increasingly demand broad-based, practical skills.

Make breakthroughs

Good communicators are needed to bridge the widening gaps between increasingly specialized disciplines and to stimulate the intellectual cross-fertilization that often drives breakthroughs. The theory, for example, that the dinosaur die-off was caused by Earth's collision with an asteroid or comet owes much to multidisciplinary efforts by astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, and chemists.

Convey breakthroughs

Even a poorly written article describing an important breakthrough may get published. But its chances of getting read, being picked up by the press, or enlightening and inspiring anyone are much slimmer than those of a well-written one, says Phillip Shewe, chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics.

Improve scientific literacy

Good communicators are needed to educate the public about science. A 1997 NSF survey indicated that only 48% of the U.S. public knows that Earth takes 1 year to orbit the sun, and only 11% can define a molecule. Such a scientifically bereft electorate--facing medical, technological, defense, and environmental choices--is primed for bad decision-making. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that 60% of all jobs in the year 2020 will require technological skills possessed by only 22% of today's workers.

Now that you know why you should work at improving your ability to communicate your science, come back here in a couple of weeks to find out about some programs that shed light on how to do so. Collectively, these efforts are helping to demonstrate for the public that there are signs of intelligible life among the scientific intelligentsia.