People in the academic world are often cut off from public dialogue, unable or unwilling to communicate their expertise through the lay press. Reasons for the disconnection are complicated but the results are not: important professional knowledge often does not get disseminated to the public.
One Berkeley professor, however, has broken through the speech barrier. His graduate students wrote and published some 30 letters to the editor and an opinion piece as part of an introductory course in public health. Three of the letters were published in The New York Times on one day. Others appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News and other papers.
"We were thrilled," said Professor Lawrence Wallack of the School of Public Health. "I would announce each new published letter and everyone would applaud.
"If we could get public health people to routinely communicate with opinion leaders (whom Wallack says are more likely to read editorial pages) this way, we could greatly improve understanding of public health issues. These students now are much more confident about expressing their views."
"It helped me think through these things," said one student, whose letter on health education was published in The New York Times.
"We began to explore issues rather than simply regurgitate material," said another.
For Karen Seal, a newly minted physician from UCSF working on her masters in public health here, the change from academic to public communication was a revelation. "In medical school, you lose that perspective a little, you stop thinking in terms of the larger public issues.
"One day a light bulb went off in my head. I thought, 'Oh, this is what we should be doing in public health. We should reach the public.'"
Seal wrote 650 words on mandatory reporting of HIV-positive individuals and instead of cutting it in half, she called an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who told her to send it right over. It was published in the Chronicle opinion pages under the headline "HIV Reporting-An Unhealthy Idea."
Although the practice of teaching university graduate students how to write letters to the editor is unusual, the rate of publication for letters submitted from the class was not.
About one in 10 were published, about average for a major newspaper.