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Wanted: Articulate Scientists

Science's Next Wave
10 NOVEMBER 2000

by Lily Whiteman
Writer and Plain Language Trainer
National Partnership for Reinventing Government
United States

"" 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.


Signs of Intelligible Life

24 November 2000
Lily Whiteman

The first article in this two-part series described how even Albert Einstein--acting like a typically uncommunicative scientist--exasperated his wife, Elsa, by ducking her requests for a layman's explanation of his research. But, as also covered in that previous article, you can avoid such spousal discord, as well as develop a powerful career-boosting asset, by honing your ability to communicate with nonscientists. This time, we'll look at a number of institutions that are finding ways to insert plain English into communication between scientists and the public, as well as among scientists of different disciplines.

Academic and Governmental Institutions

Throwing its massive weight behind science communication is the University of Texas, which graduates more Ph.D.s than any other U.S. university. Designed to help transform Ph.D.s into "citizen-scholars" whose broad knowledge is applicable outside of academia, Texas's Professional Development Program (PDP) teaches practical skills, including how to write articles, grant applications, and book proposals; craft public policies; and work in consulting. (See the Next Wave article on the program.)

Over 1000 students from 85 disciplines have taken courses from the PDP, which started in 1996 with three summer courses. Encouraging this veritable stampede toward PDP courses are their alumni, such as Delony Langer, who took a PDP course while earning her Ph.D. in chemistry. Langer says that the course allowed her to "stand out from the crowd," and so helped her land her current job as an analytical chemist at 3M. Moreover, Langer is still using the skills she acquired in the PDP course. The concise, nontechnical writing style she learned there is much more appropriate for the weekly management reports she submits at 3M than the formal, academic style she used as a grad student at Texas.

Several other graduate schools, including Notre Dame, South Carolina, North Carolina State, and the University of California, San Francisco, are either considering establishing PDP-like courses or already have done so.

Also supporting science communication is the National Science Foundation (NSF). How? By distributing over $100 million in Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) awards since 1998 to dozens of institutions that sponsor graduate programs emphasizing communication, teamwork, and multidisciplinary approaches. IGERT was created largely in response to criticism of the misalignment between graduate training and employers' demands from the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. In a 1999 speech, NSF director Rita Colwell described IGERT as part of a "culture change. ... We are making graduate education more useful to students, and more responsive to national needs."

Another fan of plain speech for scientists is the Smithsonian Institution, which now requires its students, postdocs, and research associates to devote at least 20% of their time to explaining their findings in person to the public. Why? Miles Roberts, deputy head of the Smithsonian's Department of Conservation Biology, explains: "Many scientists will write papers that maybe six people will read. But the whole business of explaining their findings to real people has previously been missing from their education. We need to have a group of people out there who care enough about what we do to fund us." The Smithsonian believes that its oral presentations to the masses will help inspire that kind of caring.


Other scientists are hoping to reach the public in print and on the Web. For example, the members of a research group called DZero at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) recently began publishing on the Internet plain language versions of their scholarly papers. These precedent-setting summaries educate journalists and lay readers, who probably wouldn't otherwise know a lepton from a quark, about one of science's most daunting disciplines--particle physics. "The 'gee whiz' relevance of medical discoveries is obvious to the public," says DZero spokesperson Harry Weerts. "Not so in physics where a technical application for a discovery might not materialize for another 200 years. We must explain to the public why our results are important."

Even lofty research journals are now reaching out to wider audiences without dumbing down. In 1997, for example, the editors of Nature condemned the "withering exclusiveness" of their own articles and trumpeted a renewed concern for readability. And in 1992, the editors of Physical Review Letters, the premier publication of particle physics, directed authors to make the first paragraph of each article understandable to physicists of varied specialists. Robert Garisto, an assistant editor at Physical Review Letters, says that his publication's efforts are complicated by the increasing specialization of physics subdisciplines, but are nevertheless yielding "some success."

In addition, the American Institute of Physics, which publishes many physics journals, recently began posting Focus. This cyber publication presents research developments in language understandable to college physics majors, who Focus Editor David Ehrenstein describes as "an underserved market." Focus's audience also includes science writers as well as physics graduate students and researchers in various subdisciplines.


Despite some advances in science communication, many scientists remain stubbornly attached to old ways. Witness, for example, the recent refusal by the American Institute of Physics to adopt even basic uniform quality control standards for articles, such as requirements for clarity and an obviously articulated point. (Those editors apparently haven't internalized the memorable advice offered to communicators by Steve Martin in the movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles: "Here's a tip: Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.")

Additionally, some of the graybeards at Texas still steer students clear of communications courses because they detract from lab time. Rick Cherwitz, associate dean at the University of Texas and director of the PDP program, believes that one way to win support from more of the university's established academics is to crank up the conversation about the importance of communication skills outside the university. At the Smithsonian, Roberts explains that many senior scientists--preoccupied with administrative activities--delegate public education to junior associates. "We're hoping that these junior associates will eventually pass on their appreciation for communication to those that follow them."

Popular Science

There's obviously an avid and appreciative audience for these efforts. One example of the public's voracious scientific curiosity is NASA's Web site, which is one of the Internet's most popular. Additionally, a recent open house at Fermilab drew 10,000 visitors.

Meanwhile, the pool of potential scientific communicators has, so far, barely been tapped. Eighty-one percent of 2000 scientists and engineers who were recently surveyed by the Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University expressed willingness to invest time in learning how to explain their work to the public. Appealing to eager audiences, an enlarged cadre of visible, articulate scientists could go a long way toward spreading user-friendly science. Elsa Einstein would, no doubt, be pleased.