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Talking to the Public

CREDIT: Shari Gearheard

The ivory tower, with the isolation the phrase implies, is long gone. Today, scientists need to interact with the public. Most of them know it.

One reason is that the public pays taxes that support much of the spending on basic science. Citizens’ control over spending is not direct, of course, but in most Western countries public attitudes influence how well or how poorly appropriators fund science. Scientists who make a good, honest, public case for their research are doing their part to secure financial support for science. Contributions from careful, sober-minded scientists can also help defuse controversy in fields that get headlines, such as climate change and embryonic stem cells. Scientists may also be called on to inspire the next generation of scientists.

But whereas interacting with the public—to the extent that it has occurred at all—has traditionally been seen as a one-way process, researchers today are called on to listen as well as to talk. Increasingly, the public is being recognized as a source of knowledge that can help speed up and inform research.

Some scientists gravitate to the role, relishing opportunities to work with volunteer "citizen scientists,” engage schoolchildren in real research, or write a blog about research in their field. But these are choices for individual scientists to make: Not everyone is cut out for interacting extensively with the public. Nonetheless, all scientists must be ready to deal with the press when the publication of their research leads to media inquiries. Few scientists get formal training in any of the skills required for such activities.

Over the years, Science Careers has collected the advice and experiences of scientists who have become actively engaged with society. We have told their stories and passed along their advice—and all of it is collected below. These articles will help you thrive—and show you what mistakes to avoid—when you choose to deal with the world outside the ivory tower (and when you don't have any choice). This page will be updated as new content becomes available, so please visit regularly for new advice.

Documenting Exposure for Disease Prevention, by Elisabeth Pain, 21 September 2012. In the course of her work, French epidemiologist Emilie Counil has worked with public officials and victims of asbestos exposure, trying to bring environmental health risks to public attention.

Asking the Public for Money, by Lucas Laursen, 6 July 2012. Scientists may be able to raise small amounts of cash through crowd-funding if they know how to deal with the public.

Translational Volcanology, by Rachel Berkowitz, 4 May 2012. Part of the job for many volcanologists is to keep the public and public authorities informed about potential risks from nearby volcanoes.

Science in the Community, by Elisabeth Pain, 9 March 2012. Engaging the community can lead to new research ideas based on real-world concerns.

Perspective: Bridging Your Research Into Public Health, by Kee Chan, 17 February 2012. Disseminating your research via social media can help you reach millions of people and generate a large base of readers and supporters.

Tips From the Top, by Michael Price, 28 October 2011. Among the attributes of successful scientists is the ability to explain findings and big ideas, Nobel laureates say.

Sowing Seeds Through Plant Taxonomy, by Elisabeth Pain, 15 July 2011. Postdoc Célia Cabral has mostly relied on media attention for marketing her start-up company, which produces essential oils.

Science Blogging and Tenure, by Vivienne Raper, 28 January 2011. Depending on your institution, your blog could be perceived as a valuable nonresearch activity that supports teaching and outreach, as a harmless hobby—or as a liability.

Feeding your Research into the Policy Debate, by Elisabeth Pain, 30 July 2010. There are many ways for scientists working in controversial fields to help inform policy and the public debate.

Trusting the Public, by Susan Gaidos, 25 June 2010. By talking to the public and local experts, some scientists are managing to collect and utilize information that wouldn't otherwise be accessible.

Collaborating with Citizen Scientists, by Lucas Laursen, 25 June 2010. Scientists can get volunteers to help them collect data, but training them and ensuring data quality requires time, money, and management expertise.

Generating Science and Public Interest, by Elisabeth Pain, 8 January 2010. Portuguese cellular biologist Mónica Bettencourt-Dias sees communicating science—and helping others do so—as an essential part of her job.

On-the-Ground Training for Climate Change Researchers, by Elisabeth Pain, 27 November 2009. Many climate scientists see interacting with society as an important part of the job—even a moral responsibility.

Astronomer Finds Rewards in Outreach, by Lucas Laursen, 16 January 2009. Astronomy Ph.D. candidate Cameron Hummels has attracted many newcomers to astronomy through his outreach efforts.

Young Italian Scientists Take to the Streets, by Elisabeth Pain, 28 November 2008. Italian scientists protest announced budget cuts through scientific lectures in public squares.

A Virologist with Contagious Enthusiasm, by Elisabeth Pain, 31 October 2008. Ali Saïb's success in science and science communication is a result of hard work, extensive networking, and good time-management skills.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Life, by Elisabeth Pain, 17 October 2008. For scientists working in synthetic biology, one of the greatest challenges is to make the public understand that what they are doing is not harmful.

Your Research in the Headlines: Dealing With the Media, by Elisabeth Pain, 12 September 2008. Few scientists have the luxury of training before they confront the media for the first time.

Sustaining Forests in a Changing World, by Elisabeth Pain, 13 June 2008. Many forest researchers consider feeding their results into the global political debate a part of their jobs.

Molecular Gastronomy: Something's Cooking, by Elisabeth Pain, 2 November 2007. One route to the public's heart is through its stomach.

Studying the Self Scientifically, by Elisabeth Pain, 5 October 2007. Neuropsychologist Bigna Lenggenhager, who studied out-of-body experiences for her Ph.D., values her experience dealing with the media, even though it offered its share of fears and frustration.

Navigating the Stem-Cell Research Maze, by Sarah Webb and Elisabeth Pain, 1 December 2006. Italian stem cell researchers have had to defend their labs’ research against claims from Italian politicians that it is illegal.

Saving Languages, Sustaining Communities, by Anne Sasso, 24 November 2006. A leader in the field of Native American linguistics, Melissa Axelrod is deeply committed to working directly with native communities.

U.S. Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Can Young Researchers Succeed? by Sarah Webb, 22 September 2006. Working with embryonic stem cells requires researchers to deal with the public more than they would in other fields.

A Case Study of a Mom-Scientist: Canopy Meg, by Irene S. Levine, 1 September 2006. Margaret Dalzwell Lowman—aka "Canopy Meg”—published a book blending science and personal stories.

Un Enfant des Etoiles, by Elisabeth Pain, 20 January 2006. Astrobiologist Eric Hébrard enjoys the media attention that space missions traditionally receive, and finds taking part in science festivals and public conferences especially rewarding.

A Non-Traditional Science Postdoc, by Meghan Guinnee, 2 December 2005. Interacting with the public through part-time work at a museum has provided an added level of meaning to Meghan Guinnee's genetics and life-history research.

A Volcanologist's Vista, by Anne Forde, 8 April 2005. Beware of media pressures toward sensationalism, especially if you’re in a field that's perceived as dangerous.

Young Scientists Take to the Streets, by Terry Vrijenhoek, 1 April 2005. Spending spare time on communication projects can help increase public awareness of science and be a plus on your CV.

The Role of Young Scientists in Public Communication, by Terry Vrijenhoek, 19 March 2004. Most scientists have no experience discussing their research with nonscientists, but it’s important that they learn how.

Chasing 100, by Ingfei Chen, 15 August 2003. Geriatrician Thomas Perls found local newspapers a good place to track down centenarians; his results led to “3 days of media madness” when they were published.

Animal Experimentation: Facing an Image Problem, by Jennifer Rohn, 27 June 2003. One way to deal with the public distaste for animal experimentation would be for scientists using animals to become more media-savvy.

I'm Too Sexy for My Science, by Katharine Arney, 7 March 2003. A tongue-in-cheek guide to what it takes to become a media darling.

Encouraging Young Policy Researchers, by Lesley McKarney, 21 February 2003. As a Ph.D. student looking at the impact of solvent exposure on the neurodevelopment of offspring, Christine Till has been pushed into the roles of a communicator, public advocate, and even counselor.

Bioscientists, Bioterrorism, and National Security, by Brad Smith, 14 February 2003. Talking with government officials and the media is part of the job at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

Changing Perceptions, by Kirstie Urquhart, 7 February 2003. Taking part in a Member of Parliament–scientist pairing scheme can allow you to become a trusted source of advice and information for MPs who need an insider's view of a science policy issue.

Do You Really Want Your Name on That Paper? by Katie Cottingham, 31 January 2003. Ethical issues are all the more difficult to deal with when they concern a paper previously branded by the media as important.

Communicating What It Is That We Do: The I-RITE Program, by Helle Rytkonen and Laure Haak, 20 December 2002. Stanford University has a training program to help young researchers explain their research in compelling ways to nonspecialist audiences.

Scientists and Journalists: Worlds Apart, by Laura Brockway, 9 August 2002. Scientists who are able to see the broader implications of their work and talk with the media and the public are helping the cause of science.

Serendipity and Where It Might Lead, by Kathleen Conlan, 1 March 2002. A good test of whether you’ve got your science straight is trying to explain it to laypeople.

Chemistry in the Community, by Kirstie Urquhart, 16 November 2001. Taking part in local outreach activities can be rewarding, and it can boost your own enthusiasm for science.

Seeing the Bigger Picture, by Hilary Marshall, 14 September 2001. Science festivals give scientists an opportunity to engage the public and highlight exciting new areas of research and technology.

Transition to Academia IV: Meeting the Media, by Stephen Cheung, 29 June 2001. Talking to the media can be fun and can greatly increase your profile among your colleagues—but there are things to consider and hidden traps to negotiate.

Research Careers at Natural Science Museums in Canada, by Mark Graham, 1 June 2001. Researchers working in museum environments must be able to communicate openly and frequently to the public and popular media, as well as to staff members and science peers.

My Experiences as a Scientist at the National Zoo, by Jesús Maldonado, 1 June 2001. One of the advantages of working in a zoo is that you can communicate with an interested public about conservation efforts and your research results.

From Science to Art and Back Again, by Richard Taylor, 27 April 2001. One way to reach out to the public is by combining scientific work and artistic endeavors.

All the World's a Stage, by Kirstie Urquhart, 23 March 2001. As a young scientist, Lizzie Burns communicated science to the public via plays and paintings.

Wanted: Articulate Scientists, by Lily Whiteman, 10 November 2000. There are many benefits to reap from learning to articulate your science clearly and succinctly for wider audiences.

Raising the Alarm, by Kirstie Urquhart, 29 September 2000. If you're thinking of “blowing the whistle” on an employer, you need to have a plan, which may include getting the media on board.

Your Dog and Pony Show: Presenting a Dynamite Public Lecture, by Peter Fiske, 1 September 2000. The skills and experience you gain while preparing and giving a popular science talk will make you a better speaker overall.

Taking a Stand: Ecologists on a Mission to Save the World, by Jocelyn Kaiser, 18 February 2000. The ecology community is torn between injecting findings into policy debates and worrying that activism could erode the discipline's credibility.

Taking a Stand: Citizen-Scientist Guru, by Jocelyn Kaiser, 18 February 2000. The late Stephen H. Schneider was the quintessential media-savvy scientist-advocate.

Transforming a Discipline: A New Breed of Scientist-Advocate Emerges, by Kathryn S. Brown, 18 February 2000. After 15 years of frustration, conservation biologists have learned how to do a better job influencing policy.

Transforming a Discipline: At Home on the Range, by Kathryn S. Brown, 18 February 2000. Working with resource managers allows conservation biologists to nurture the natural environment.

Taking a Stand: Role Model for Ecology's Generation X, by Jocelyn Kaiser, 18 February 2000. Gretchen Daily has been emblematic of a new generation of ecologists who are motivated by strong environmental values and feel comfortable influencing policy.

Taking a Stand: A Reluctant Warrior, by Jocelyn Kaiser, 18 February 2000. American ecologist Gene Likens is described by his colleagues as an advocate with views firmly rooted in basic science.

Why Should Scientists Bother Talking to the Public? by Graham Farmelo, 7 January 2000. Young scientists often think they should concentrate on making their reputations and leave the publicity to their seniors. But is this the only model?

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