America’s Scientist Idol: conveying science to the public

How do you get researchers who are more used to talking about their work in dense scientific terms sprinkled with jargon, to translate that into every day English, something that is not only understandable to someone without a science background, but also fascinating and engaging?

That’s the goal of a couple of different workshops at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in Boston.

The first workshop was called America’s Scientist Idol and it used the American Idol model to show people how to do a great presentation. Six scientists had three minutes each to give a talk about their work and why it matters to people outside the world of academia. At the end a panel of three judges – scientists and communicators all – gave each presenter a critique of their performance and then chose a winner.

It was a fun and incredibly varied group with one researcher giving a wonderfully illustrated discussion of sex. Well, insect sex actually but she peppered her talk with enough illustrations of Ryan Gosling and cheerleaders and Charles Darwin (surprisingly unsexy) to show how her work can also apply to people.

She faced tough competition with one presenter explaining his work in a rap – you try finding something that rhymes with epigenetic – and another who used complex mathematical formula and pictures of clouds with smiley faces to explain why weather forecasting isn’t always accurate.

The presentations were fun and fast and quite fascinating, but they also had a serious point; namely that if scientists want the public to understand their work then they have to be able to explain it to them in ways they’ll understand. And the more engaging and entertaining the presentation, then the greater the likelihood you’ll find an audience. At a time when funding for science is getting harder to come by, being able to make a strong case about the importance of your work and the need to support it is vital.

Without public support, and the public funding that springs from that support, most of the most important science of the last 50 years would not have been possible. For instance NIH research led to the development of 15 of the top 21 drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992.

But not all scientists are natural communicators and most don’t get any training in communication skills as they study for their PhD. So what are they to do? That’s where the second workshop came in. Titled Bad Presenter Bingo 2.0: Be a Loser of this Science Communication Game, the goal here was to give researchers some tips and basic strategies on how to talk about their work.

They handed out bingo cards to everyone with each square of the card containing something to avoid in a presentation, such as “Introduction of Introducers’ (boy I hate that), ‘Facing Screen Not Audience’, Reads a Written Talk’, and everyone’s favorite “Talking at Slides with the Pointer.’

Now, avoiding those pitfalls won’t necessarily make you a great and dynamic speaker, but it will certainly make you a better one.

Monica Metzier, from the Illinois Science Council says her game sprang out of bitter disappointment after going to a science conference where there were lots of subjects she was interested in, but the presenters were awful so she left feeling “geeked out”. She was determined to do something about it, and came up with “Bad Presentation Bingo’.

Her goal is to drive home to researchers the enormous importance of scientific outreach and doing it well. She says if researchers can do a better job explaining their work it can better serve the public, removing confusion about topics as varied as climate change, the importance of childhood vaccinations and the importance of stem cell research. OK, I added that last bit.


Image from Mikey Angels

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