Speaking for the Data
Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter. Nancy Baron. xxii + 246 pp. Island Press, 2010. $55 cloth, $27.50 paper.
Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work. Dennis Meredith. xvi + 357 pp. Oxford University Press, 2010. $35 paper.
As a child, Joanie Kleypas was drawn to the television programs of Jacques Cousteau, and they played a role in inspiring her to become a marine ecologist when she grew up. But she never dreamed that she herself would get involved in communicating science to the public. Decades later, however, she was forced into that role when her research uncovered important information. Working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, she was one of a handful of scientists investigating the effects of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on ocean acidity. When the first model results came in, showing that ocean acidity would increase greatly, the realization hit her that this would pose a huge threat to marine life. She had to excuse herself from a meeting to go throw up.
Kleypas had always shied away from promoting her own work, but the unpleasant revelation that ocean acidification was a very serious problem launched her reluctantly into the public sphere, as she resolved to help policymakers understand and address the matter. Her efforts have paid off: Public awareness of the problem has increased, and federal funds for research have been authorized by the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2009.
Kleypas’s story, recounted in Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, illustrates the resolve required for investigators to leave their comfort zones in the lab, the field and scientific journals in order to deliver bottom-line, jargon-free information to lay audiences. The book summarizes Baron’s decade of experience leading workshops for environmental scientists through the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Her curriculum includes such topics as formulating (and sticking to) a clear message, talking with journalists and policymakers, and promoting a scientific paper. Like her workshops, Baron’s authoritative writing is studded with cameo appearances by researchers who have taken the plunge into the public sphere and have sound advice to offer. Some of America’s best-known science journalists weigh in as well.
The book is supplemented by an attractive, user-friendly website (http://www.escapefromtheivorytower.com/) that provides, among other things, exercises to help scientists decide how much advocacy they’d like to do, videos of scientists offering advice, and links to effective research-lab websites. Unfortunately, although the book was published in August 2010, three months later many of the online resources mentioned in the text still could not be found on the site.
Escape from the Ivory Tower joins a growing throng of recent publications that exhort, even scold, scientists to convey their work more clearly in order to save the world from environmental disaster and scientific illiteracy. These include Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America, Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear? and Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Baron is not a scolder—she presents her guidance with a supportive, can-do attitude. And she defines her readership rather narrowly. “It’s time for the very best scientists to engage,” she writes, and she’s most concerned with high-impact environmental studies that address such problems as the ozone hole and fisheries collapse.
For everyone whose work may be merely fascinating, there’s Dennis Meredith’s Explaining Research, an encyclopedic volume of advice based on the author’s 40-year career as a public information officer at research institutions such as Cornell and Duke. Meredith largely dispenses with weighty altruistic reasons for scientists to speak up; instead, he emphasizes how to reach donors, funding agencies, potential students, collaborators and even a researcher’s own family. People do want to listen to scientists, he argues; the American public trusts scientists more than journalists and perceives them as heroes. (In his own assessment of 140 movies, Meredith found that heroic scientists outnumbered villainous ones by 6 to 1.)
Having bolstered the reader’s morale, Meredith proceeds to deliver an avalanche of guidance on every facet of explaining research, from giving compelling PowerPoint presentations to advising museum exhibits, shooting video, writing press releases, and talking with the media and with policymakers. On topics that are covered by both Escape from the Ivory Tower and Explaining Research, Baron and Meredith offer largely concordant advice, but Meredith suggests for his broader audience a wider array of skills and media to pursue. Understandably, he emphasizes the value of working with one’s public information officer and crafting successful press releases—not only in the main text but also in the supplemental booklet “Working With PIOs,” which can be read online at the book’s website (http:// explainingresearch.com/).
Explaining Research includes some astonishing and useful minutiae: When writing for print or the Web, one should revise sentences that contain too many “short” letters such as a, c and n, because it’s easier to read text that combines short letters with tall ones. Readers are reminded to go to the bathroom before participating in Web conferences, and to wear tall socks for television interviews, lest their calves peek out below their pant legs.
Unfortunately, preoccupation with so many details sometimes obscures the big picture. This is particularly evident in Chapter 15, titled “Create E-Newsletters, Wikis, Blogs, Podcasts, Social Networks, and Webinars.” Despite Meredith’s general emphasis on defining and understanding one’s audience, here it’s not entirely obvious for whom and in what context these things should be done—and his examples, such as Science magazine’s respected podcast, do not clarify how an individual researcher might use similar tools. That makes Meredith’s advice no less valid, but it means that parts of his book will be most useful to scientists who already know that they want to pursue a specific means of outreach and just need instructions.
Baron and Meredith have each made admirable efforts to incorporate anecdotes, quotes and humor, but their books are undeniably instruction manuals. Most readers won’t cozy up to these volumes in an armchair with hot chocolate, but they’ll be grateful for the investment when they can pull either book off the shelf in times of need. Aspiring journalists and public information officers will also find valuable insights into scientific culture and the way their own work is perceived. Even the more narrowly targeted Escape from the Ivory Tower should be embraced by a broad scientific audience; it’s impossible to predict when, like Kleypas and many others, you may be jolted out of your comfort zone and forced to convince the world that your data matter.
Elsa Youngsteadt is a programs manager at Sigma Xi, where she coedits the Science in the News Daily e-newsletter and contributes to Public Radio International’s The World Science podcast. She is also a freelance science writer and holds a Ph.D. in entomology from North Carolina State University.