What’s the Dirty Little Secret of Science Communications?

March 20, 2014

Bill Gates. Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr through a Creative Common license.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, in the immortal words of Peter Drucker.

But there’s one thing that trumps culture: Money.

Which brings us to a dirty little secret: The current crisis in public funding for science — and the tectonic shift to private philanthropy to bankroll same — will be the best thing ever to happen to the cause of improved science communications

That might sound harsh. And it isn’t an argument for public defunding of science — that funding is essential. But think about it. If you have to convince a donor to give you money, a well-written grant proposal isn’t the answer. And you need more than just impeccable credentials and a track record of success.

You need a storyline, and an ability to sell it. 

Two recent articles in major publications — one everyone in science is talking about, and one that went virtually unnoticed — reinforce this impression. They make an unmistakable case: to the better communicators will increasingly go the spoils. And that scientists’ traditional indifference to communicating with non-specialists melts when opportunity calls.

Billionaires With Big Ideas — and the Stories that Move Them

First, the buzz piece: William Broad’s take out in last Sunday’s New York Times on how private donors — what the Times’ headline termed “billionaires with big ideas” — are increasingly funding U.S. science research.

As Broad reports, these philanthropists — household names like Bloomberg, Koch, Gates, Schmidt, Ellison — don’t have just deep pockets. They have very specific agendas.

The trend has its critics. Many in the U.S. scientific establishment, Broad writes, see big problems in this shift from public to private sponsorship of American research. They feel private funders will concentrate resources in the hands of elite universities and on upper-class health issues (particularly toward cures) at the expense of basic research and the common good. (Private funding for science isn’t currently monitored, unlike government grants.)

But other scientists and science-based institutions, Broad notes, aren’t holding their noses. Instead, they’re diving in to take advantage of big donors’ growing appetite for science that’s targeted and fast. These scientists are smartening up their communications skills accordingly, even hiring professional consultants to “help scientists bond quickly with potential benefactors.”

The article gently mocks this consulting trend. Which is strange, because the piece is also full of examples of scientists inspiring individual donors to support topical research — including the seed funding for the first automated DNA sequencer, which led to the Human Genome Project.

Sustained, effective communications between scientists and donors were essential to catalyzing each of these projects. The idea that philanthropists are simply dictating terms and hiring teams of worker bee scientists to execute them is unrealistic. While they’re looking at credentials and ability to deliver results, they’re also looking for a narrative they can connect with.

The framing of Broad’s article — private vs. public as a kind of high-level culture war for the soul of a public resource — also fits a overly familiar narrative that it might be time to discard.

Again, the decline of public investment in science is deeply disturbing. But look at impact investing, which sits between the worlds of pure philanthropy and pure investment. It’s a great idea, but one that still has yet to find the forms through which it will function most effectively, according to Sasha Dichter of the Acumen Fund. For private big-money science, there will undoubtedly be similar hybrid models that have yet to shake out. Creativity doesn’t have to mean creative destruction. The present is not a snapshot of the future.

Science is Increasingly Competitive at All Levels — and Demands Better Communications

Even more important: Framing the shift to privately funded science as a contest of big vs. big masks the increasing competitiveness going on at all levels of science, and the increasing pressure for scientists to be better communicators in order to break through. For an example, read researcher Yoshimi Rii’s piece “A powerful narrative” in the March 6 issue of Nature.

At first, Rii’s story seems like one we’ve read a hundred times before — a cautionary tale of PowerPoint gone bad. (It even has a subhead worthy of PowerPoint: “Scientists should find engaging ways to present information to their target audience.”)

Rii writes about how easy it is to rely too much on graphs and bullet points in PowerPoint at the expense of constructing a narrative. After one of her presentations (to schoolteachers) gets a poor reception, she vows to give up canned presentations forever. (Poor PowerPoint — does anyone love it? Yes: The singer David Byrne has done a love letter to it…in PowerPoint.) 

All science communicators have had similar conversations with their scientists — and many scientists have had them with each other. Yet death by PowerPoint — a zillion words per slide + illegible font + indecipherable graphs + no narrative — continues. Without the “standard scientific format,” as Rii puts it, many scientists would apparently feel naked talking to a room full of strangers.

Unless that room can give them money, or has. In Rii’s last story, she and some colleagues present on new research at their university to an audience of donors. Rii is apprehensive — until one scientist “opened up a star-studded umbrella” to illustrate a talk on the history of calendars, and another “presented a beautiful slide show of mushroom pictures and riveted the audience with accounts of hunts in unusual places.”

No graphs; no bullet points. Instead: Style points, beaucoup narrative and accessibility. The donors love it. And will presumably continue to do so.

What’s worthy noting: while Rii changed her approach after a poor encounter with a non-philanthropic audience, her colleagues already knew they had to do better for a philanthropic one. Scientists are already internalizing the demands of a dynamic marketplace.

Building an Alternative to the Anti-Communications Culture of Science

It might seem crass to play the funding card to a scientist as you try to convince her she should become a better communicator — it’s just not part of the culture of science, after all.

Except that, as Rii illustrates, scientists are catching up to reality. Which is why their communications staff need to catch up as well.

Here again we confront culture. Scientists have traditionally positioned better communications of their work as a sort of add-on public service — the right thing to do, but not necessarily the smart or lucrative thing. Science communicators have always seemed a little embarrassed to make a case for the full value of communicating well — and we seldom stress the penalties for ignoring it.

But now, it seems as if the marketplace and social trends are well ahead of us. Like it or not, the snobbery of scientists proud that they “don’t communicate” with non-specialists will be eroded over the next few years by a new paradigm. 

So maybe it’s time for science communicators to make the dirty little secret our explicit raison d’etre. There are a lot of breakfasts to take — and work to be funded.

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  1. this is very poorly informed and somewhat offensive… “the snobbery of scientists..”

    I am a scientist and make a huge effort to communicate and always have. Likewise a large number of my colleagues also go to great lengths to communicate. When people generalize to “scientists” based on a few bad powerpoint presentations etc., it is offensive and condescending and does not do justice to core issues of communication.

    Private funding for science is great. But there is a big difference between private and public funding, ie it is private. Just try to get your proposal to Bill Gates. It takes more than communication skills. I can get my proposals freely to NSF or NIH, but the big private donors are behind closed and well-guarded doors. It is important to remember this.

    Many programs at TNC draw upon science from non TNC scientists. Those data were communicated effectively and TNC profits by it. Without the science we apparently so ineffectively communicate, TNC wouyld not know which species are endangered or where to put protected areas. If TNC claims to have science-based conservation, how can it then turn around and claim scientists fail to communicate?

    1. Andrew Mack, thanks for your comment. Allow me clarify some points:

      1) I did not intend to argue that all scientists are poor communicators, nor did I intend to argue that all scientists fail to make an effort to communicate. In fact, I could not argue those positions, given that, as director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy, I work with dozens of scientists every month at the Conservancy and with other organizations — many of whom are excellent communicators and who are eager to improve their communications skills.

      The sentence I wrote reads: “The snobbery of scientists proud that they ‘don’t communicate’ with non-specialists will be eroded over the next few years by a new paradigm.” (Emphasis added to highlight the qualifier.) I was referring to those scientists — still many in number — who continue to try to make a virtue out of their poor communications skills. Most science communications professionals would agree that we still encounter too many such arguments, not to mention incidences of communications tactics and strategies that need help. Science is getting closer to where it needs to be regarding clear and effective communications — but not quickly enough.

      2) My piece is not a call for everyone to apply to the Gates Foundation or other big donors in hopes of funding. It does use the example cited in the New York Times piece (and another, smaller example cited in the Nature piece) in an attempt to highlight an increasing trend of competitiveness in science for funding — one that will place a premium on scientists as communicators.

      Congratulations on your positive attitude and efforts toward better communications. I am heartened to hear that a large number of your colleagues share those positions.