The third installment of #IsisVsTomasson went down last night, and.... it was a wide ranging discussion. There were some extremely lucid statements, some cancer and a proposal for a new reality show: GuerrillaPimpPI. If you don't have time for anything else, skip to 1:15:00 when the latter discussion takes place.

But there was a lot of circling around the idea of communication, both to the public and to granting agencies. I'm on the record as thinking the ability to "sell" one's work to any audience is critical. Who your target is depends on how the message is packaged, but the ability to make a convincing case for why your work is The Best Thing Eva! is a really important skill.

Additionally, NSF has a Broader Impacts requirement, which has taken on increasing importance in the last few years. Although outreach, specifically, isn't required, it's one of the BI options most people engage in. Despite the perception and popular Ivory Tower myth that scientists and holed up in labs and can't speak to the public, many of the people in my field are engaging the public regularly. Hell, I've spent several weeks myself with over a total of 100 local teachers, working with them to increase their capacity to educate students of my state.

But anyone who has managed to get funding in the current climate should know how critical communication is. It's what we're forced to do and if you can't pull it off things don't go so well. I've mentioned before that part of what I really enjoy is the story telling aspect of grant writing. You're building a case and talking about what is possible, which is very different than describing what was done, in the case of manuscript writing. But as we have discussed at length, review panels are not just people in your field. In many ways, you are writing a general document meant to excite, especially at the NSF preproposal stage. Engaging your audience is the difference between getting invited and not.

So, in many ways I think we sometimes make a false dichotomy between scientists and communication. The science comes first and foremost, but if you don't get it funded, published and discussed at meetings, you might as well set your lab books on fire now.

4 responses so far

  • I still was left with the squicky feeling that we're only talking about communication in the context of funding. Funding is important. Getting funding. Keeping funding. But, is there value to just telling stories?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think there is, because it's critical to engage the general public in science that is happening now. That's part of the reason I have chosen to work with local teachers - because I can interest them in what we do and then go to their classrooms and interest the students. Even if I don't get directly to that classroom, I can give them a story to take to the class. It's been effective, so far, in making students think about science as a career and think more about their local environment.

  • Rachel Paul says:

    I think there's definitely merit to telling the stories for telling's sake. When Danielle responded to the "Why is the antonym of a scientist a grandmother" question (which was my favorite part of the webinar) she talked about who her audience is, and particularly how speaking to her audience helped to engage kids and teenagers in science.
    This is how I became engaged in science and research. I fell 50% haphazardly and 50% purposefully into a summer student program at WashU when I was in high school. It was a three summer commitment, but I found myself much more engaged in the program than my counterparts by the second year. Why? My PI could tell a story. She explained the health disparities we face with a relatively segregated population in St. Louis and how we were going to affect change in a group of kids in a way that I could understand at 16. I believed in what we were doing and became an advocate for it.
    Second PI, the one I worked for in college and continue to work for now was able to do the same thing. I have seen her speak to people high up in the NIH and the 5 year old siblings of the babies we see in the NICU. It's the same story, told for a different audience. I'm of the opinion that it's just as important for the 5 year old sibling to understand why we're doing this study as it is for the NIH.

  • Alyssa says:

    I definitely agree there are many reasons to communicate our science besides for funding purposes. Engaging the public is important to put value on what we do, to show what role science in general has in society (I love talking about spinoff technologies from space exploration, for example), and to help develop the next generation of scientists.

    What drives me personally, though, is to increase public science literacy. Far too often are we fighting against misconceptions about climate change, cancer research, stem cells, evolution, etc., etc. --- the more scientists can speak to the public first hand, the more the correct information is getting out there (regardless of topic), and the more educated the population will be about these topics and about science in general.

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