I was pleased to see a post on Framing Science outlining an upcoming workshop that he’s teaching to postdocs and grad students on how to communicate their work to the public. This post is cross-posted there.

I’m a scientist-turned-journalist who has given several talks on this subject to other scientists, and really appreciate hearing that you’re doing much of the same. Scientists are used to simply presenting facts and letting their audience make sense of it. That is not how PR or the media works. Working with them to frame their message can be nothing but useful. If you let your audience frame the issue for you, you’ve lost much of the power of your message.

Because some of my background is in radio, I’ve found it very useful to play some audio clips of scientists talking about their work on the radio. That lets the scientists I’m talking to hear their compatriots talking in their own words . This is particularly effective in showing how powerful metaphor and story can be when trying to communicate to someone who knows nothing about your work. I try to play clips about, say, biology, to physicists, so they’re put in the role of the novice.

I’m also curious what you or anyone else thought of the “Scientists Guide to Talking to the Media” book, in the reading list in the post, from Union of Concerned Scientists.

Note that there was also an interesting post from Mary Miller at the Exploratorium about the backlash to Matt Nisbetts (the Framing Science guy) perspective on communicating science to the public. She wrote:

There’s been a backlash though from some bloggers and science communicators that accuse Matt of distorting science, of advocating manipulative tactics similar to that of political operatives. One online comment in a piece by The Scientist (you must register for free access) says that under no circumstances should anyone “spin” science which is how he interprets framing. The poster, Earl Holland of Ohio State, goes on to say that scientists should stick to their work, running experiments and distilling the facts, and leave the communication to the professionals. I think this shortchanges the abilities of many scientists to tell compelling stories about their work and make it understandable and relevant to everyday people. Science is multi-dimensional and the implications of the enterprise go well beyond ”the facts” and into realms of politics, policy, culture, education, the economy, and everyday life. Wading into these realms may make some scientists uncomfortable, but it is the right of citizens in a democracy to know what their tax money is supporting and its relevance to their lives and interests. The Exploratorium has a long tradition, beginning with our founder Frank Oppenheimer, of working with scientists fully capable of explaining their work to public audiences and discussing its implications and context in a larger world. The more scientists there are who embrace this more public role, the better we are as a society.

Note that graduate students are trained to do science, but generally not how to teach it or to write or talk about it. Regardless of how you feel about the framing issue (whether it’s “spinning” or not), the simple act of talking to future scientists about how to communicate their message can have nothing but positive impact.

Artwork by Todd Marshall - Rajasaurus narmadensisRajasaurus was the king of the dinosaur pile, but he didn’t make the cutting room floor. The blackouts in DC yesterday reminded me of my own sad blackout story, when I was a lowly intern at NPR.

One of our most famous dinosaur experts, Paul Sereno, had just discovered a new species of dinosaur. Pretty famous guy. A new dinosaur discovery doesn’t happen every day. But it still didn’t trump, say, stories about coal-powered hydrogen production, so they gave me the story to see if I could do something with it.

I spent one or two frantic days pulling together the story, doing interviews, working nights, editing, recording and re-recording, and we had it… just right… This was one of those one-minute stories that run on the hour at NPR. You would be amazed at how hard it is to pull one of those together, to distill a story to its essential elements in just about 5 sentences. It was slated to go on the air in the afternoon, during one of the hourly newscasts.

And then the great Northeast blackout of 2003 hit. We weren’t hit in DC but, well, we had to cover it. It turned out to be the biggest blackout in US history. All hands on deck. At the science desk, of course, we had to find out as much as we could about the power grid and why the blackout happened. Joe Palca did several two-ways (where the host and the reporter “chat” about a topic) where he just repeated the same information over and over and talked about past blackouts. And, of course, Rajasaurus never got on the air.

Here’s what wikipedia has to say about Rajasaurus.

And, just for you, here is my original story that didn’t air. I liked this story. Too bad.

You can find all my NPR stories here (scroll down to the NPR logos).

Artwork by Todd Marshall

Matthew Nisbett’s blog, Framing Science, just posted a note about a potential ban on nanotechnology in consumer products due to health concerns. He quotes a NY Times article in which nanotech is called the asbestos of tomorrow. He writes:

The asbestos comparison immediately places nanotechnology in the mental box of uncertainty and risky health impacts. For several years, consumer advocates have used asbestos as a familiar historical example to anchor interpretations of nanotech, but now this advocacy package has been given resonance by a study appearing this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. From the NY Times article

Emphasizing a regulatory vacuum, the advocacy group released a report this week calling for nanomaterials to be banned in foods and packaging, and for mandatory labeling in cosmetics, personal-care products and cleaning agents.

I commented:

I think a ban is an alarmist move. Not all nanotechnology is bad, nor is it all good. A while back a citizen group called for a warning label on all products containing nanotechnology. You can listen to an excellent audio essay by journalist Philip Ball on my podcast SmallTalk (a short-lived series on nanotechnology from the Exploratorium).

There is also some good discussion by the folks at the Woodrow Wilson institute on that podcast about the tricky issues facing consumer products using nanotechnology. It’s a regulatory issue, and one that needs to be done carefully because of the potential health risks, but the benefits of nanotech are potentially large.

Another blogger picked up on the NY Times story and had this to say:

There’s a new study reported in Nature Nanotechnology entitled “Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity in a pilot study.” Or, as the title seems to have been understood by reporters at the New York Times and elsewhere, “Blah NANO blah blah blah ASBESTOS blah PATHOGEN blah blah.

Even more interestingly, he points out that the study isn’t that substantive, and the inclusion of Andrew Maynard as a co-author may have been strategic:

Substantively, there isn’t much surprising about this study. Indeed, the authors basically say “toxicologists have a paradigm for how mesothelial cells respond to long, skinny, tiny fibers – and that paradigm seems to hold true for carbon nanotubes.” Their results aren’t very conclusive, or even all that dire, yet the study has gotten plenty of attention. Why? Well, for one thing, the study was pretty savvily designed to fit into ongoing policy debates about nano. One of the authors, for instance, is Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in DC.

Now, Maynard is a bona fide expert in this area, but his current day job is at a Washington think tank. His contribution to the article doesn’t appear to have been technical, but rather he “provided intellectual input and contributed to the writing of the manuscript.” I’m guessing that means he helped the authors figure out how to position their research in relation to previous studies on nanotubes, and used the considerable media profile of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to amplify their findings. It certainly looks like the Wilson Center primed science reporters to take a much keener interest in this study than they might normally.

There are certainly a lot of people with a stake in this debate. How it plays out in future years will be interesting.