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A scientist and a non-scientist walk into a bar. As the night proceeds, the non-scientist asks the scientist the oft-dreaded question: “So, what do you do? What is your research about?” What likely follows is a confused and confusing garble of jargon and background information that entirely fails to excite the non-scientist or to motivate follow-up questions. The scientist comes off as an aloof academic at best, condescending at worst.
The prompt to describe one’s research in a casual setting is not dreaded because of any gap in intelligence between scientist and non-scientist. The dread arises because — for all their training in practicing science — scientists are never trained in communicating their work to the public. In a PhD training program, any communication emphasis lies solely on giving technical, data-heavy talks to colleagues. Compounding the problem, scientists are often unaware of how much shared understanding they take for granted when communicating with their peers — information and jargon that any non-scientist is unlikely to have encountered. The gap between the bar patrons is not one of intellect, but one of information.
Multiplied across an entire society, this barroom miscommunication creates an information gap between the scientific community and the public. As a result, the public’s exposure to science is mostly limited to pop-science news articles on the internet that are often rife with misinformation and spun out of proportion, cultivating false beliefs or unfounded hope in new “cures.” A common reaction from scientists to what they perceive to be a perversion of their work has been to rail against the public for not “getting it”, or against the journalists who publish it for misrepresenting their arguments. But it is a rule of good writing that a misunderstanding is never the fault of the audience. Instead, the explanatory buck must stop at the scientists themselves. For that, scientists must be trained to communicate well.
Taking this lesson to heart, in 2013 a group of graduate students organized the first ComSciCon (Communicating Science Conference), a workshop with the goal of teaching graduate students how to communicate more effectively, both in writing and in speaking. A wild success, ComSciCon now attracts graduate students from all over the country. Too many, in fact, for a single conference! While the National workshop still takes place annually in Boston, a series of satellite local conferences have sprung up across the U.S. In 2016, NeuWrite member Rose Hendricks organized the first annual ComSciCon-San Diego. It generated much excitement among local graduate students, and planning for ComSciCon-SD 2017 is well underway!
This year, ComSciCon aims to tackle some of the biggest issues faced by science and science communication. Invited panelists will find strategies for communicating productively about controversial topics, for fostering diversity and inclusivity in the scientific community, and for communicating to build expertise when passing familiarity is not enough. In a hands-on Write-A-Thon, attendees will improve a draft of their own scicomm piece in a critical revision session with invited experts. Next, they will broaden the reach of their message by translating it into a new medium, like a podcast or video script, or a lesson for middle school students. All this paired with lots of informal opportunities to communicate science and network over meals and coffee should make for another successful ComSciCon San Diego. Plus, the conference is entirely free for attendees. Join us – apply now!
For those avid readers who attended the local conference last year, this year will be a bit different. First, there will be more time to work on pop talks (short, 1-minute spiels about your research), receive feedback, and incorporate that feedback. Second, there will be more breakout sessions enabling students to practice converting their written pieces for a different audience or into a different medium. And third (but also very important), there will be more coffee breaks 🙂