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Workshop aims to help Wyoming scientists communicate with the rest of us

Rebecca Martinez

Science can be fascinating, even to non-scientists. But when experts use a lot of industry jargon to explain their research, it can be hard to understand.

Now that funding for research is harder to come by, scientists need to do more to win over the public’s hearts and minds to back their work. The National Science Foundation will be hosting a workshop at the University of Wyoming to help scientists, engineers and other academics to communicate with the rest of us about their research.

(fans blowing)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Geneticist Anne Sylvester is working in her greenhouse, examining stalks of corn in every stage of growth. The room is built to simulate a balmy Iowa cornfield. Fans blow sprinkles of water into the air, sun lamps beam over the stalks, and the roof can open up to allow carbon dioxide out and oxygen in.

ANNE SYLVESTER: So we’re studying cell division and expansion in the shoot apical meristem and in the forming leave primordia...

MARTINEZ: That’s maize geneticist lingo that Sylvester uses to talk with her peers about her research. She’s basically studying specific traits in corn plants to understand how they conserve water. Her research could ultimately lead to growing corn that’s more water efficient, which could be especially interesting for ag producers… if they can understand the way it’s presented. (fade out fans) Sylvester says scientific jargon has been developed in individual fields to be the most accurate way to explain certain concepts… but not necessarily the best way to talk to people outside the loop.

SYLVESTER: What we really need is to understand when our language is not really appropriate for the experience of the people that we’re speaking with. You know, we tend to work in a whirlwind of activity and forget about the sharing part outside of our scientific world.

SCOTT MILLER: Oh, it is an enormous problem! Yes!

MARTINEZ: That’s Scott Miller, an ecologist who studies how watersheds and aquifers in Wyoming work. He says there’s been a communication gap between scientists and the public since the days of Galileo.

MILLER: And there’s always been tension in the scientific community, whether scientists should stick to science and then hand that science off to others to interpret, or whether it was the job of the scientist to frame it in such a way that it was digestible.

MARTINEZ: Fewer scientists have the option of staying in that lingo-bubble these days. Universities rely on grants from the National Science Foundation to fund their research, and that money comes from taxpayers. Sequestration cut this year’s NSF budget by about 356 million dollars, and grants are growing increasingly competitive. The NSF is also demanding that scientists include public outreach and education plans in their grant proposals.

MILLER: And we should be able, as scientists, to show the public why what we’re doing matters. Because, it’s taxpayer money, and so there’s an obligation on behalf of the scientist to be able to share that information back to the general public and explain it.

MARTINEZ: But the National Science Foundation knows these code switching skills don’t come naturally to everybody. So they’re hosting a workshop on the U-W Campus this September called “Becoming the Messenger.” NSF spokeswoman Susan Mason says it’s meant to help scientists, engineers, and mathematicians talk about their work in ways that are basic, but socially relevant and interesting to the public. It’s not unlike marketing.

SUSAN MASON: We will cover how to create a message and how to distill that message. We will give them tips and techniques… Giving them, really, some basics on how to frame all of their communication.

MARTINEZ: The future of science funding is contingent on public support. Many scientists hope that if they communicate their findings better, citizens and lawmakers might make more-informed decisions. Also, the United States has slowed the number of its breakthroughs – especially in medicine – while China and India ramp up their efforts, and the future doesn’t look bright. In 2011, the National Assessment of Education Progress showed that one in three American children are proficient in science in middle school, and only one in five when they graduate.

Marjie MacGregor is a Zoology PhD Candidate who studies population control in coyotes and frequently visits middle and high school classrooms to talk about her job. She’s passionate about talking with kids about the work she does.

MARJIE MACGREGOR: It encourages people to go into science. I think sometimes we lose students at the younger ages because they’re afraid of science. They don’t understand it.

MARTINEZ: MacGregor says if people can better understand scientific principles and why ongoing research matters, research might get more support. That way, more scientists can to do better work… And everybody wins.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.

BACKANNOUCE: Students, researchers and educators are welcome to attend the “Becoming the Messenger” workshop on Sept 11 and 12. It’s free of charge, but participants must register on the National Science Foundation website this coming week.

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