November 22, 2013 by Dr. G
Last night, I attended the Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. I’ve known about the CHF and its museum in downtown Philadelphia, but I hadn’t yet toured the exhibits, much less attended any of their seminars. My husband (who happens to be a chemist) shared with me an announcement about this lecture, as he thought I would be interested in the topic – and he was correct! He knew I had attended two ScienceOnline conferences earlier this year, and the title was a perfect fit for my interests – “Covering Complex Science, or How I Explained a Frank Kasper Sigma Phase in Sphere-Forming Block Copolymer Melts to a Radio Audience.” The talk was given by Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR.
Dr. Palca was a very entertaining speaker and made several relevant points about science communication that I had heard at previous meetings this year. But he also introduced some new ideas and viewpoints I had not thought of before. Here are my main takeaways:
(1) Silly introductions get people on board for the story. Dr. Palca used a silly introduction with his PowerPoint slides, making a point that starting with something lighthearted and in common language (not scientific jargon), people will keep on listening and not change the radio channel.
(2) We should have stories focus on the people (scientists/researchers) and the process of science. Dr. Palca challenged us with a big question – how much do reporters, or anyone for that matter, have to explain to someone in order for them to “get it”? He believes that someone has to really work for about 20 years in order to understand the science of a discovery, so how much is someone going to learn, retain, and be able to explain to others with one audio story or one lecture? This is one reason he has started Joe’s Big Idea, a project by NPR “that examines where big ideas come from and how something goes from an idea to a discovery.” I love this idea of exploring how scientists get to an answer – for a general audience, especially a younger audience, I think this would be very effective in getting people interested, listening, and talking about science.
(3) A non-jargon paragraph at the beginning of a journal article will increase readership, even among scientists. Dr. Palca posed a question to the audience – how many of us read all of the articles in each issue of the journal Science? I didn’t see anyone raise their hands. Then he asked how many of us read the articles that are the most relevant to our discipline (such as the chemistry articles, physics articles, etc.). Many people raised their hands. Dr. Palca suggested an idea that seems so simple to implement – have the first paragraph of every journal article be written in non-jargon, to do a service to fellow scientists in other disciplines, to start making science and science knowledge more interdisciplinary. I think all journals could benefit by implementing this idea!
This seminar reminded me of the podcasting workshop at ScienceOnline Oceans I attended, where I struggled to create a 60-second podcast without using any jargon from one of my own papers. I know of colleagues that have students take journal articles and have them write up a non-jargon version of the work, which encourages students to first try to understand the science before communicating the science with a non-technical vocabulary. I’m sensing a common theme across my conferences and seminars….
Everything Dr. Palca communicated this evening made sense and made me wonder… why aren’t we doing more non-jargon communication already? What role and responsibility do faculty and scientists have to communicate their work to a general audience, yet balance our role and responsibility to publish in discipline-specific peer-reviewed journals? And the question I will still try to answer… what can we do better in the classroom to have students understand the process of science, what scientists do, but also balance that with teaching science? I wonder what students think about all of this.