Preparing Science Communications for a Diverse Audience: Why Should Scientists Bother?

why science video focus diverse audience communicationScientists are increasingly expected to participate in science communication, beyond what we’ve done in the past, which is essentially to talk to each other via technical articles and papers presented at scientific conferences.  Science students are not taught in school to communicate with the non-technical audience, which sends the message that it’s not important to have the skills necessary to communicate with an audience beyond the scientific community.  In fact, many scientists would argue that it is not their job to communicate their science to broader audiences, and they often balk at any suggestions that they do so.

Unfortunately, such an attitude puts you at a disadvantage in the competitive world of science.

Scientists also have a responsibility to promote the value of science to society, which helps combat anti-science groups and misinformation campaigns.  However, I realize that most people will be motivated only by what will benefit them directly, such as research funding, publications, a good job, tenure, and general professional recognition.  So I will focus on one of these:  funding.

Scientists are increasingly expected (and required) to explain their research to non-scientists.  Funding from government agencies, at least in the US, usually comes with a requirement to make the results available to the public and in an understandable format. Some funding agencies expect proposers to show how their project will make a broader impact.  The National Science Foundation, for example, assesses proposals based on two criteria:

  1. What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
  2. What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

Most scientists have no problem understanding and addressing the first merit criterion, but are stumped by the second one.  Many fail to grasp that NSF expects proposers to fully address both criteria in their proposals.  In fact, here’s what NSF says with regard to this point: “Effective October 1, 2002, NSF will return without review proposals that do not separately address both merit review criteria within the Project Summary. We believe that these changes to NSF proposal preparation and processing guidelines will more clearly articulate the importance of broader impacts to NSF funded projects.

Here are some of the specific questions NSF expects the proposal to answer in addressing the Broader Impacts criterion:

  1. How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  2. Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  3. To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
  4. What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

NSF is deliberately vague, however, about how to go about this because they do not want to stifle creativity.  They do provide some examples on their website, but it’s mostly up to the individual PI to figure out a specific plan and write a convincing description of how they will meet the Broader Impacts requirement.

Even if your peer reviewers mainly focus on the technical merits of the proposal, the panelists at NSF will be instructed to carefully consider how well the proposal addressed the Broader Impacts criterion.  Here is what NSF says that panelists should consider in assessing a proposal with respect to the Broader Impacts:  “…the personal, professional, and educational experiences, the future plans and prior accomplishments in the integration of research and education, and the potential to reach diverse audiences and benefit society.

I’ve been a co-PI on a number of NSF proposals, and my experience is that the second criterion is not taken seriously by quite a few PIs (and not surprisingly, their proposals fail to get funded).  Not only should NSF proposals fully address the second merit criterion, they should provide examples of how the PI has successfully done this in the past, just as they demonstrate their technical expertise by listing their relevant publications.  Do you have any examples of broader impacts to list in your proposals?  If all you’ve got is “I trained x graduate students and x post-doctoral scientists”, you should be aware that you are competing with others who submit proposals with prior accomplishments such as involving K-12 teachers or students in their research; developing a series of videos, tutorials, and interactive websites to educate the general public about science concepts; or holding a series of workshops to teach graduate students the basics of science communication.

There are many other reasons to participate in science communication to broader audiences, but the desire to be successful in competing for grant funding should be sufficient motivation to get you started.  If you are a student or new Ph.D. and have yet to land your first NSF grant, you should be working to develop an edge…not only in the technical aspects of your research, but in communication skills.  If you are a more established scientist, but have not been very successful, especially with NSF or similar funding agencies, you might want to consider whether your proposals have successfully addressed the Broader Impacts criterion.  If you can communicate with non-technical audiences and can list concrete examples to convince a review panel that you can meet the Broader Impacts criterion, you will be ahead of many people applying for grants.

If you seriously plan to develop outreach products or get involved in activities to reach diverse audiences, you first have to know who they are and how to talk to them.  This series of blog posts is meant to provide some beginning guidelines and suggestions for you, the scientist, in communicating your science to diverse audiences.

The next post considers who the diverse audience is and how to connect with them.