AAAS Annual Meeting Bridges Science– Communication Borders

From a talk on a journal’s outreach program to an array of science-related family activities, the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, titled “Science Without Borders”, both addressed and included much in the communication of science. We are pleased to share, in chronological order, some science–communication-related highlights of the meeting, held 17–21 February in Washington, DC.

Symposium: “Communication Outside the Box”

This session demonstrated diverse approaches to communicating science to the public.

Setting the stage, the moderator, Brian Heap, of the European Academies Science Advisory Council, said that science writers need to identify creative ways of engaging scientists in communicating their research to the public.

The first speaker was Chris Smith, of the University of Cambridge, who created the radio program “The Naked Scientists”. Smith said that discussion among scientists and with the general public can be encouraged by organizing talk shows in which scientists can discuss their research and the public can call in, send e-mails, or post questions about a researcher’s work on the program’s social-media page.

Rikke Schmidt Kjærgaard, of the Harvard Medical School, discussed the topic from another perspective—“Science, Art, and Visual Communication”. She said that to communicate a message, one must first identify the context, the key concept, and the target audience. Rather than using clichéd visual images to portray scientific concepts—for example, the double helix to represent DNA—she recommended using images that are fresh and engaging.

David Bennett presented on behalf of his wife, Patricia Osseweijer, of Delft University of Technology, Delft, the Netherlands, where she coordinates Imagine, a project developed by the university to improve interaction between science and the public. He introduced the “three E model” approach to science communication, which states that popular science communication must entertain, appeal to the emotions of the audience, and at the same time educate. The approach, he said, introduces science in a positive and engaging way.

—Wura Aribisala

Career-Development Workshop: “Writing Scientific Papers in English: Tips and Resources”

Although language use may be the most obvious challenge, other aspects of writing scientific papers in English pose important difficulties for many scientists whose native language is not English. Therefore, the career-development workshop “Writing Scientific Papers in English: Tips and Resources” provided wide-ranging advice.

The presenter, Barbara Gastel, of Texas A&M University, emphasized content, organization, and clarity as essentials of a successful scientific paper. She also noted culturally related challenges in scientific writing, such as differences in directness of expression.

Next Gastel presented and discussed 12 tips:

  1. Write to communicate, not to impress.
  2. Establish a productive mindset.
  3. Know the ethics.
  4. Follow the instructions.
  5. Gather plenty of suitable information.
  6. Use good models.
  7. Organize information carefully.
  8. Set aside blocks of time for writing.
  9. Write in English from the start.
  10. Revise, revise, revise.
  11. Credit sources adequately.
  12. Get presubmission peer review.

Gastel cited a variety of resources, including books on scientific writing, style manuals, Web sites on relevant topics, and AuthorAID (www.authoraid.info), a project to help developing-country researchers to write about and publish their work. The main Web sites discussed were the following:

The slides from the presentation are available in the Author Resource Library, atwww.authoraid.info/resource-library.

—Barbara Gastel

Symposium: “Science Without Borders and Media Unbounded: What Comes Next?”

It is generally agreed that American journalism is changing fundamentally, owing largely to the rise of new media. Using climate-change coverage as an illustration, this session discussed the current state of the “legacy” media.

Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, noted that the mainstream media, especially the print media, face “more a revenue crisis than an audience crisis”. The lack of revenue leads to cuts in newsroom staff, he said, especially at larger newspapers, and science reporters are often among the first to go.

Elizabeth Shogren, a reporter at National Public Radio, and Seth Borenstein, of the Associated Press, spoke about the current realities of reporting science and the environment. One reality, Shogren said, is that reporters are now expected to report for a variety of media.

Borenstein explained that news media often organize their science staff in one of two ways: by subject, in which reporters specialize in particular topics, and by journal, in which reporters are assigned specific journals to cover. Often those journals are Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which, Borenstein said, are the three that news editors consider “tier 1”.

Finally, Borenstein noted the difference in cultures of journalism and science regarding timeliness. He gave an example in which scientists considered an event that occurred 11 years before to be recent; however, news editors are unlikely to be interested in a report analyzing a decade-old incident. Borenstein emphasized that any story that he writes must have a news peg, a reason why the information is currently relevant.

—Christina Sumners

Workshop: “The Science of Comedy: Communicating with Humor”

For comedian Brian Malow, good comedy and good science communication have a lot in common.

During the session “The Science of Comedy”, Malow used pieces from his standup comedy routine to illustrate the similarities.

Malow contended that any form of public speaking—teaching a class, giving a lecture, or delivering a joke—requires practice. He shared several pointers that can help anyone to give a successful presentation.

The first tip was “be yourself.” Malow said that in an effort to be funny, some people look for jokes in books and other sources; this seldom works. “The joke has to come from you, and from the material,” he said. Another key element is to “be prepared.” Malow mentioned that when he works on a routine, he does a lot of research on the topic and writes down everything he knows about it. Knowing the subject well helps the speaker relax and deliver a better presentation, he said.

Malow stressed the importance of being passionate and engaging when delivering a presentation. He advised the packed room to use gestures, be lively, and “let the people know why you fell in love with science.” Malow also said that it is essential to know the audience and its motivations so that you can engage it and keep it interested.

The hour-long session was peppered with jokes from Malow’s routine, including his famous “bar jokes”. “Two bacteria come into a bar,” he said, and when the bartender tells them that he does not serve their kind, they reply “It’s OK, we’re staph.” The audience exploded with laughter.

For more information on Brian Malow and his science-flavored comedy, visitwww.sciencecomedian.com.

—Alejandra Arreola-Triana

Lecture: “Scientific Literacy: Where Are Our Forçados When We Need Them?”

This lecture, by G Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, focused on the problem of declining scientific literacy. Clough said that the metaphor of the for- çados, or bull fighters, of Portugal aptly describes the challenge of maintaining scientific literacy. The forçados are the team trying to corral the bull, which in this case is the problem of scientific literacy: an issue that “is loose, angry, and not doing well”, according to Clough.

“Even though we’ve been working on this issue, I would argue that we’re still falling behind, and will continue to fall further faster,” Clough said, emphasizing the importance of promoting scientific literacy. “We are all concerned in one way or another with scientific literacy.”

Recent surveys show that only a small percentage of the US population can answer basic science questions correctly. The problem, according to Clough, is that people have strong views about scientific facts but those “facts” often are incorrect. This isn’t an issue of formal education but rather of immersing the public in the correct information through science education outside the classroom.

In the Enlightenment, Clough stated, it was said that one man could know everything. Today that is impossible, as knowledge is increasing so rapidly and fields are becoming more and more specialized. Clough said that nobody needs to know everything now, but we should still do our best with the means we have available in a coordinated manner. For instance, Clough credited the news media, rather than the government, with best conveying all the information about Hurricane Katrina to the general public. He also advocated the use of informal educational methods, such as museums and Webinars, to unlock the mysteries of our planet and the universe for the general public.

—Katie Cowart

Symposium: “Communicating Diversity in Science: Implications for Climate-Change Denial”

When it comes to climate change, a large gap exists between what scientists know and what the public knows. Panelists in the session “Communicating Diversity in Science: Implications for Climate-Change Denial” talked about the politicization of science, the nature of scientific debate, and public perception of climate change.

Gavin Schmidt, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained how, through intentional obfuscation, politicizing climate science lowers the chances of clear communication in the public sphere. He also said that sensational and inaccurate media reports hinder discussion by eroding public trust. To improve the odds of accurate communication, he recommended engaging people through blogs and public talks.

Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego, discussed the nature of the climate-science debate. She said that the activities and publications of scientists show a consensus that climate change is occurring and that contrarian claims about climate change do not stand up to peer review. Once scientific agreement converges, she said, disagreement is more politically motivated.

Thomas Lessl, of the University of Georgia, talked about problems with public understanding of science. He said that the problems include personal knowledge trumping technical knowledge, doubts overruling arguments, and abstract distinctions not holding up in public debates.

Andrew Revkin, who runs The New York Times–affiliated blog Dot Earth, added that “there is a lot of denial going around.” He said that many people’s opposition to accepting the scientific consensus may have less to do with science and more to do with polarizing figures such as Al Gore.

—George Hale

Symposium: “Publication Without Borders: Spanning Countries, Disciplines, Audiences, and Roles”

Scientific publications often serve single countries or disciplines. They rarely target both researchers and others. And scientists and publication professionals tend to occupy highly distinct roles. This session focused on endeavors that span those borders.

Deborah L Partain, of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international research collaboration, described how the program helps to integrate research and publication by having a publication specialist sail on each expedition. Graphics specialists in the program, she said, take turns serving in that role, which entails working with scientists to ensure sound documentation. Partain ended with video of expedition members expressing New Year’s greetings on board ship in their native languages.

Banalata Sen, of Environmental Health Perspectives, focused on outreach initiatives of the journal, which is published by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Among initiatives that she discussed were news articles in the journal, science lessons based on journal content, and research-communication workshops. She also described the journal’s international program, which includes translation of journal material, partnerships with overseas journals, and participation by regional editors in different parts of the world.

Finally, Sara Gwynn, of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, described the Journals Online Projects (www.inasp.info/file/4fd988568504d4bcfa2f4cd855a07d45/jols.html). The projects, she noted, are intended “to increase global visibility of research from journals published in developing and emerging countries” and to help editors to improve their journals and manage them online. Among sites with the projects, she noted, are Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.

—Barbara Gastel

Symposium: “Surprise. . . . It’s Science! Reaching New Audiences in Unconventional Ways with Festivals”

In this session, speakers shared their experiences with science festivals and other public outreach events in a variety of contexts and countries, including China, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Savita Custead, of the Bristol Natural History Consortium, discussed successful festivals and related activities, including one in which displays staffed by scientists were set up inside rest stops to engage travelers unexpectedly in science. She also mentioned “Knit a Neuron”, in which neuroscientists visited women’s needlecraft groups and talked about their research while doing needlecraft.

Loren Thompson, of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), described UCSD’s “Expo Day” as a lever for yearround science education; it serves as a capstone for one year and a kickoff to the next. Mikkel Bohm, of Danish Science Communication, spoke about efforts in Denmark to involve children of immigrants in science.

Bruce M Alberts, of Science, said that scientific societies have a responsibility to sponsor science festivals. Alberts also suggested that a comprehensive Web site would facilitate finding successful examples of science outreach and science festivals.

Some overall messages of the session? When putting on a science festival or similar event, it is important to go to where the people already are and to use their surprise—about finding a science festival in their shopping mall, for example—to engage them. Furthermore, expect the unexpected, have plans but be ready to adapt, and encourage reluctant scientists to “just try” to interact with the public. Science festivals can serve as milestones in educational projects and as ways to involve not only students and teachers but parents and other family members in addition to the general public.

—Christina Sumners

Workshop: “International Training in Science Journalism: The Mentoring Approach”

The session “International Training in Science Journalism: The Mentoring Approach” focused mainly on the SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration) program, in which science journalists in African and Arab countries are mentored by experienced journalists from both developing and developed countries.

Naser Faruqui, of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, spoke about “an ongoing race for innovations that benefit a broad crosssection of society” in developing countries. He stressed therefore that science journalists, who help translate science to development, need good mentors. Nadia El-Awady, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), said that the WFSJ aims to empower science journalists, particularly those in Africa and the Arab countries, with the SjCOOP program.

Kathryn O’Hara, a professor at Carleton University, Canada, and former news anchor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, presented the details of the SjCOOP program. She said that, unlike informal mentorship, SjCOOP’s approach is quadratic (one mentor for four mentorees), cross-cultural, diverse, and closed (within the WFSJ). She mentioned that SjCOOP has a transparent evaluation process visible to funding agencies and donors.

A SjCOOP consultant, Gervais Mbarga, of Laval University, Canada, said that the mentorees received in situ training in newsrooms with mentors and others and interacted locally with scientists, decisionmaking authorities, and the public. That approach, he said, curbed job loss in the long run.

Akin Jimoh, SjCOOP Anglophone Group coordinator, remarked that the program increased WFSJ’s Web visibility and membership and fostered an increasingly favorable relationship between scientists and journalists. In closing, El-Awady thanked the sponsors: the UK Department for International Development and IDRC.

—Parvathy Hariharan

Special Event: “Family Science Days and Meet the Scientists”

“Family Science Days” offered lectures and hands-on activities to children of all ages and their families. The event, which was free and open to the public, allowed visitors to interact directly with scientists and learn about their work.

Family Science Days included exhibits from 30 organizations. Among them were the American Chemical Society (ACS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit tables featured child-friendly activities. At the ACS table, attendees could “marble” paper by using household products. Brookhaven National Laboratory featured the science behind “stainproof” clothing. At other tables, people could peer through microscopes, learn how electricity works, and see how wind currents affect the ocean.

“Family Science Days” included lectures aimed at middle-school and highschool students. Among the topics were robots, endangered species, and flight. The inaugural lecture, “The Evolution of Life”, featured Lelavision, a duo that combines music, sculpture, and dance in its performances.

—Alejandra Arreola-Triana

Audio recordings, slides, and handouts from many sessions of the 2011 AAAS annual meeting are available. (See www.aven.com/conf.cfm/cid/1171.) Information on the 2012 AAAS annual meeting, to be held 16–20 February in Vancouver, can be accessed at www.aaas.org/meetings.

WURA ARIBISALA, ALEJANDRA ARREOLATRIANA, KATIE COWART, GEORGE HALE, PARVATHY HARIHARAN, and CHRISTINA SUMNERS were graduate students in science and technology journalism at Texas A&M University when this article was written.
BARBARA GASTEL coordinates the graduate program in science and technology journalism at Texas A&M University.