Social Science

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How should science be taught in the 21st century? In this month’s ASBMB Today, authors Morgan Thompson, Jon Beckwith and Regina Stevens-Truss argue that, in contrast to the traditional siloed approach, modern training in science requires perspectives that incorporate public discourse and consider the societal context of scientific research. Their solution is the Science and Social Justice Project, a joint collaborative between Kalamazoo College and Harvard Medical School that “seeks to identify, connect, and coordinate scholars doing science and social justice teaching and research.”

The idea of applying such an inclusive approach to scientific training is one that is gaining traction throughout the scientific community. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, has argued that science communicators should be involved in research projects from beginning to end, in an effort to bring broader social, ethical and political perspectives to experimental design and interpretation. Meanwhile, collaborations that address the overlap between scientific and societal issues have become more common and more formalized. Numerous institutions now feature such programs, including Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy and the Stanford University Program in Law, Science & Technology.

Without Borders Conference

As the Science and Social Justice Project grows, the project leaders hope to get more and more scientists involved in their effort. A major step will be the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? Conference, held September 25-28, 2014. The conference will create “conversations on emerging epistemologies, radical geographies, critical solidarities, and transgressive practices that transcend and theorize across disciplinary and academic/activist borders.”

The role of science within popular culture is rapidly expanding. Ensuring that upcoming generations of scientists and non-scientists are able to freely converse and navigate between their respective areas of expertise will improve not only science, but society as a whole.

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National Academies host sci-com workshops

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Science outreach relies on effective communication. On that point, there is widespread agreement. Unfortunately, there is otherwise little consensus on how to best make scientists effective communicators: What is the best model for science communication training? How is “effective” defined? Are scientists even that bad at communicating?

To try and bring some focus this debate, the National Academies of Science in Washington D.C. recently brought science communication experts and thought leaders together for two separate workshops focused on science communication training.

As part of their Public Interfaces of Life Sciences roundtable, the National Academies of Science hosted a workshop titled “Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication.” Speakers, panelists and audience members discussed existing platforms and programs for science communication that serve as part of the broader scientific infrastructure. Some of the highlighted speakers included Nalini Nadkarni and May R. Berenbaum, both previous winners of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, as well as Sonny Ramaswamy from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program. The discussion also featured insight from social scientist researchers, who presented research showing the professional impacts of science communication efforts. Sadly, a snowstorm caused the second day of the workshop to be cancelled, denying participants the chance to gain insight from funding organizations.

IMG_0238Taking a different approach, a second workshop, titled #GradSciComm, focused on identifying and (hopefully) rectifying deficiencies in existing training efforts. Hosted by COMPASS, the workshop grew out of a desire to address the unmet need for science communication training for graduate students, recognizing how this deficiency impacted professional development and career options for STEM trainees. Participants worked to map out potential pathways to help identify science communication core competencies and integrate them into STEM graduate student training, coming up with approaches to overcome significant obstacles like lack of institutional support and poorly defined evaluation metrics.

So after three full days of discussion and deliberation (with one more to come), what were the take-aways? One major outcome from the workshops was the chance for key stakeholders to finally put their heads together and collaborate on collective efforts, rather than continuing to toil in isolation. The discussions and debates that took place will springboard efforts to bring awareness to individual programs, helping to establish a national network that will help to legitimize and standardize science communication training through both bottom-up, grass-roots and institutionalized, top-down approaches.

Participants were also able to tease out several common themes related to the specifics of communicating that came up repeatedly during the workshops. These included: messaging, framing, delivery and context/understanding of the audience. More work is needed to distill these themes into specific criteria that can be used when designing, operating and evaluating current and future training programs.

Finally, the mere existence of these types of workshops demonstrates the growing attention that is being paid to the issue of science communication. The more opportunities that scientists have for practicing and training, the more willing they will be to participate in outreach activities in their local communities. ASBMB is part of that effort: in 2014, we will be launching a comprehensive science communication training program that will help imbue our members with the skills necessary to become expert communicators. We will also be hosting a science communication-themed workshop at EB2014. Stay tuned!

 

MORE INFORMATION

Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication workshop:

COMPASS #GradSciComm: