Scientists are great communicators—with other scientists. But once they leave their university to enter the work world, scientists from every discipline face a new challenge: how to succinctly communicate the value of their work to decision makers who control research dollars and set policy.  Success requires a mix of communication, influence and emotional intelligence – soft skills that are missing from most science curriculum. 

Convincing decision makers to support new medical research, space exploration or climate technologies, demands more than making science understandable. It requires an ability to understand the decision makers’ world, establish credibility and connect the ask to a compelling “why”.  Scientists must make a persuasive case in a carefully-crafted way. But most of them were never taught how.

Resources for Communicating Science to Non-Expert Decision Makers

To fill the curriculum gap, several organizations and professors have taken up the charge. Here are some U.S.-based resources for acquiring skills that scientists need to advance their work:

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science – Established 2009

Stony Brook University, at its Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has already trained over 14,000 scientists and doctors in the US and five other countries. Drawing on his career as an actor, Alda and the Center’s trainers combine improv and vivid storytelling techniques in their workshops designed to teach participants how to connect with audiences and talk about their topic in words that an uninitiated listener can understand.  Demand is growing:“Every day, we’re getting more requests, not just for workshops but a series of workshops from the government and NASA. It’s just wonderful. There’s a tremendous need for it. Science is not getting funded in the same way it did, and it’s much more difficult for scientists to raise funds for their work.  They have to be better communicators,” said Alda.

COMPASS – Established 1999

With roots in marine and environmental sciences, COMPASS founders took up the cause of training scientists with support from philanthropic foundations with namesakes including Packard, Moore and Bechtel, that recognized the need for knowledgeable scientists to serve as advocates to help protect our communities and our planet.COMPASS Co-Founder Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former Administrator of NOAA says  “Scientists have a tremendous amount to contribute to solving society’s most pressing problems and many are eager to engage with society, but they often need help in learning how to be effective.” COMPASS workshops and tools like their Message Box teach scientists how to talk to journalists, use social media and leverage scientific findings to influence policy.

AAAS Communicating Science Workshops – Established 2008

Conference workshops or webinars hosted by professional organizations like theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are helping scientists improve their communication. During the past decade, more than 6,500 scientists and engineers have attended workshops developed by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement.  AAAS also presents communication topics during conferences. For an introduction to using narrative as a tool for conveying scientific information watch their  2018 Communicating Science Seminar.

DIY Recommended Reading

The curated publication list on Championing Science describes dozens of notable titles worth reading (including our recent released book Championing Science – Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers) if you want to learn about the science of decision making and how to improve your presentation visuals and content.  You’ll also find books that explain why integrating fact-based narrative and using familiar story structure make data and information more compelling and memorable. Effective science communicators know that integrating the power of storytelling is a high impact way of sharing truth, not fiction.

Communication Savvy Professors

Educators like Katherine Hornbostel at University of Pittsburgh and Scott St. George, associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota are committed to teaching students vital communications fundamentals.  Katherine, an inventor and assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials, partnered with her colleague Matt Barry to offer Intro to Technical Communication for the first time last fall.  Scott created a seven-week graduate seminar titled The Art of Scientific Presentations that has attracted students from across many science disciplines since 2012. You can preview his course fundamentals by watching Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Make Your Presentations a Little Bit Better. MIT through its Open Courseware efforts offers (Science Communication: A Practical Guide) with downloadable materials that touch on some topics relevant to communicating science to decision makers.

These resources can create a foundation for learning how to communicate science with impact. Given the complex problems in the world that rely on technological ingenuity and scientific advances, universities would be well advised to add essential skills for championing science to their course offerings.