Explaining science findings in plain English
Researchers urged, as ‘civic scientists,’ to jettison jargon, explain benefits of their work to public

By Catherine Zandonella, Public Affairs

07 March 2001 | Despite the growing role of science and technology in daily life, many Americans are in the dark when it comes to understanding basic scientific concepts. To reverse this trend, research scientists must pitch in by becoming more civic-minded, say a growing number of educators and science journalists.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science late last month, a panel of scientists and science journalists mapped out this new role for today’s university researcher: the civic scientist. Such a scientist not only conducts research and mentors students but captures the imagination of the general public with stories of how scientific discoveries are made.

Turning scientists into communicators is not simply a noble aspiration, it is imperative for the scientific community’s survival, said UC Santa Cruz Chancellor M.R.C Greenwood. At stake — future funding, academic freedom and the quality of public science education.

Greenwood urged university researchers to become involved in outreach, whether by serving as advisers on government panels, giving talks at a Rotary Club meeting or answering calls from science journalists.

Despite the lack of knowledge of science, the public enjoys learning about new discoveries, said San Jose Mercury News science writer Glennda Chui. “There is a great hunger on the part of the public, in my mind, for information about science,” she said. To address this hunger, scientists often must learn a whole new way of speaking, jettisoning jargon and acronyms in favor of everyday language.

Some universities have begun to teach this language. The California Institute of Technology requires undergraduate students to complete a course in science writing. Science journalism programs are popping up at major universities around the nation, and a surprising proportion of the students signing up for the courses are science majors, said Deborah Illman, a former chemistry professor who heads the University of Washington’s science writing program.
But negative attitudes can derail efforts to train graduate students to communicate about science. Some of Illman’s students feared telling their graduate advisers and peers that they were taking her course, worried about jeopardizing their science careers. Similarly, faculty members often deride colleagues whose names appear in newspapers. These obstacles need to be overcome, said Illman.

While some scientists are reticent, most experts that Chui contacts are eager to help, she said. But both Chui and science writer Charles Petit of U.S. News and World Report said too much eagerness can raise their journalistic suspicions. “We start to mistrust academic scientists more than we used to because the scientist might have some financial interest,” said Petit. Chui said journalists use their own form of peer review — calling other experts in the field to verify the validity of a researcher’s claims.
Helping science journalists explain research to the general public is just one avenue for the civic scientist. Another is to serve as a scientific adviser to a school board, a strategy that has been successfully used by evolutionists. Another option is responding to a local or national crisis in a question and answer session on the Internet. “Nobody has to do everything. Just do something,” said Greenwood.

Scientists who ignore their civic role do so at their peril, said Greenwood. Federal agencies increasingly require outreach efforts. Also, a drop in federal funding and the high cost of equipment and personnel has forced institutions to seek donations from private individuals and foundations. The portrayal of scientists as involved citizens can directly enhance fundraising efforts.

Perhaps most crucial, panelists argued, is that scientists must be accountable to the primary financial provider of science, the taxpayer. While studies show federal science spending is backed by a majority of Americans, their tenuous understanding of the discipline could derail future funding.

Science IQ and the U.S. public
(from a 1999 study)

• 29 percent could define DNA.
• 16 percent could define the Internet.
• 13 percent could successfully define a molecule.
• 21 percent provided good explanations of what it means to study something scientifically.

Source: The National Science Foundation’s 1999 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology.


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