Communicating science is vital, workshop at Clark makes clear

The public’s increasing lack of understanding and growing distrust of science has become apparent to many, from members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences to the casual talk-radio listener. 

Popular New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin recently wrote: “Specialized journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science. But the situation also presents a great opportunity – and responsibility – for scientists, their institutions, and their funders. Institutions that thrive in this world of expanding, evolving communication paths are those willing to engage the public (including critics) and to experiment with different strategies. The alternative is to hunker down, wait for misinformation to spread, and then – after the fact – sift fact from hype.”

In July, several members of Clark’s scientific community addressed these concerns during a special two-day workshop titled, “Communicating Clearly: Opportunities and Challenges for Scientists in a Changing World.”

The workshop was led by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), sponsored at Clark by the George Perkins Marsh Institute, the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise, and the HERO program.  The COMPASS mission is to promote the use of science to guide coastal and ocean policy. Its New England operations have been housed at the Marsh Institute since January.

Colin Polsky, Clark Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research & Active Pedagogy and associate professor of geography, welcomed the group and made introductions. Robert Johnston, Director of the Marsh Institute and professor of economics, presented “Perspectives from a Seasoned Scientist-Communicator.”

“Discovering the truth is our job, just as it’s the media’s job to figure it out,” Johnston told an audience of about 20 on July 21 in the Fuller Room of the Goddard Library. “Think of it as your job to tell an effective story.”  But, he stressed, “Don’t stretch the truth, don’t go out on a limb, and don’t speculate.”

After a boldly frank and funny video of scientists’ “True Confessions” of mishandled media opportunities, Matthew Wright,  COMPASS outreach specialist, presented concrete and useful tools for “Bridging the Worlds of Science and Journalism.” He pointed to a crucial difference in the two fields: Journalists generally seek conclusions first, then evidence. For scientists, it’s just the reverse.  Workshop participants explored perceptions and stereotypes in both camps that can hinder effective communication with the public and policymakers.  

Wright and Research Scientist and COMPASS Science Policy Coordinator Verna DeLauer led research supervisors, Ph.D. and masters students from Clark’s geography, biology and chemistry programs, as well as faculty members and a student from the UMASS Medical School through mock interview scenarios and taught the value of “Applying the Message Box,” an effective way to anticipate, formulate and edit an articulate message for the media. The simple box/diagram offers a way to deal with the “curse of too much information,” DeLauer told the scientists. “Never leave the journalists to think up a message for themselves,” she added.  

Last spring, more than 250 members of the NAS – including Clark Graduate School of Geography Director Anthony Bebbington and Research Professor Susan Hanson—signed an open letter aimed at “restoring public faith in the integrity of climate science,” published in the journal Science. It begins, “We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts.”

On July 22, Polsky and Clark Associate Professor of Biology Deborah Robertson closed the workshop session. “Communicating Clearly: Opportunities and Challenges for Scientists in a Changing World” provided valuable professional development for a cadre of young scientists at Clark and represents one  step toward helping the University’s scientific community translate research and learning into more enlightened public policy and effective problem solving.  Workshop participants included:

Alison Bright, Graduate Student of Biomedical Sciences at University of MA Medical School

Andrew Caiazzo, Master’s Student in Geography and HERO Manager, Clark University

Jamie Fitzgerald, Ph.D. Student in Biology, Clark University Sohini Ghoshroy, Graduate Student in Biology, Clark University

Nicholas Giner, Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant in Geography, Clark University

Tom Hamill, Master’s Student in Geography, Clark University

Ed Harris, Ph.D. Student in Geography and HERO Manager, Clark University

Daniel Runfola, Ph.D. Student in Geography, Clark University

Brenna Schwert, Master’s Student in Geography and HERO Project Manager, Clark University

Brian Seitzman, Ph.D. Student in Evolutionary Biology, Clark University

John Doghigian, Ph.D. Student in Biology, Clark University

Jamie Towle, Ph.D. Candidate in Chemistry, Clark University

Heather Wiatrowski, Assistant Professor of Biology, Clark University

Max Wright, Master’s Student in Geography and HERO Research Supervisor, Clark University