Picture this – you’ve just completed extensive research that might end up saving someone’s life or changing the world – yet you’re struggling to explain it to the general public.
A group of researchers at Oregon State is working to ease that struggle for students with a new course aimed at connecting science and research to the community through effective communication.
More than 45 mostly graduate-level students attended the first offering of the course, Communicating Science and Risk Beyond Academic – or TOX 507/607 – this fall to learn to explain their scientific research from experts across Oregon State.
“Our goal was to provide students with the communications skills they need to explain the significance of their research and their results to the public,” says College of Public Health and Human Sciences Assistant Professor Molly Kile, who helped design the course.
“No discipline works in a silo, and being able to communicate with each other is important for student success.”
This type of education, she says, represents an important advancement to promote interdisciplinary education and training opportunities – a goal of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
“To put it simply, this is the way forward,” Molly says. “No discipline works in a silo, and being able to communicate with each other is important for student success.”
The interdisciplinary course spanned several colleges including the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Science, and about 15 disciplines such as Public Health, Marine Resource Management, Toxicology, Fisheries and Wildlife, Science Education, Chemistry, Ecological Engineering, Food Science and more.
“To take just two examples, research related to public health and toxicology involves learning about things that affect people’s health and well-being,” Molly says. “Learning how these different disciplines examine what is often the same problem leads to new innovations and subsequently new knowledge. It creates and fosters academic curiosity and gives us more tools to solve the problems that contribute to poor health. Interdisciplinary thinking often leads to new breakthroughs.”
Students in the course discussed communicating to individuals, the public and media through a variety of methods such as blogs, social media and news releases. They learned to revise technical, scientific language to an 8th grade reading level in an effort to reach a broad audience.
“This was one of the more challenging activities,” says Environmental and Molecular Toxicology Assistant Professor Stacey Harper, who helped design the course. “At a minimum, the students gained an appreciation for just how difficult this is.”
So, why is it important for the community to be able to understand scientific research?
“As someone whose research involves studying people, I see it as our duty to be able to explain what we have found to the people who so generously participate in our studies,” Molly says. “Learning skills and developing tools for having these conversations can be difficult, but critical to our ability to deliver our promise of improving the quality of people’s lives.”
“I think the growing need to communicate science and risk is partially driven by the way science is funded nowadays,” says Risk Communication Specialist with the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) Kaci Buhl, who helped design the course. “Federal agencies support a great deal of research and they, in turn, are supported by taxpayers. If scientists cannot connect with taxpayers in a way that inspires future support, we can expect that support to erode. Plain language can help to convey the importance of the work to potential funders.”
“I see it as our duty to be able to explain what we have found to the people who so generously participate in our studies.”
Researchers say communication is a necessary skill for aspiring scientists, who for the rest of their careers will be asked to interpret complex topics and potentially explain whether something is safe, risky or dangerous.
“Scientists and the general public tend to speak different languages when it comes to science-based topics,” Kaci says. “For example, ‘probability’ means one thing to scientists – it is a measurable number, possibly a low number – and another thing to most members of the general public – if something is probable, it is likely to happen. This course was designed to help them become bilingual in that respect.”
Because many students work on issues that characterize hazards and risks to the environment or people, several sessions were devoted to developing active listening skills, understanding how people perceive risk and using techniques for discussing risk and safety with individuals, groups and the media.
“Many students in the course are Superfund Research Trainees who work with research scientists to measure chemicals at hazardous waste sites and evaluate their human health or environmental health risk,” Molly says. “These activities are incredibly important and are notoriously difficult to communicate. That’s because the measure of risk is mathematical, and it often involves a lot of assumptions regarding how people interact with that environment. Also, the methods used to calculate risk do so at a population level, but people want to know about their personal risk. This raises a lot of communication challenges.”
Kaci, who frequently has conversations like this with people who call NPIC with concerns about pesticide exposure, provided students with the skills needed to bridge this communication gap. “The level of risk is essentially made of two things: the magnitude of the hazard and the amount of exposure to that hazard,” she says. “Ask questions about the likelihood of exposure. Really listen. Summarize what you know and don’t know. Focus on the person, not the population.”
To help students apply what they learned in the class, the final assignment required each to read a scientific paper written by an Oregon State researcher, interview the scientist to better understand why the research was important and then distill it into a 450-word press release that could be posted to Oregon State’s website.
Because social media has become such an important part of networking and communicating – including the scientific world – students also received a couple of sessions on social media – an overview of the role social media plays in science communication and a mini-workshop on Twitter. By following selected science blogs throughout the term, they also discovered the value of blogging and effective ways to share information online.
“Platforms that are bidirectional can be intimidating to grad students,” says Superfund Research Center Outreach Specialist Naomi Hirsch, who helped design the course. “It is important to be educated on best practices and the science of science communication. Students need opportunities to practice and get familiar using these tools so they enhance – and not hinder – careers.
Naomi says some students became so interested in this topic that they approached her for additional opportunities and now attend the OSU Science Communicator’s monthly group sessions.
“We want students to be able to passionately share their research with the world in a way that makes a difference,” Naomi says.
Bringing it home
“Our major job as scientists is to develop new knowledge about what we study. In my case, it is how people are exposed to chemicals and the effects on their health.
Once I started to generate knowledge, I realized I needed to share it with those who participated in my study.
Initially, I thought I just needed to explain the details and they would understand the information my research had generated. That approach completely failed. They did not want to know all the details of the methods I used. They wanted to know the results and significance of my work for them.
As a graduate student, I was conducting an exposure assessment of arsenic to women of reproductive age in Bangladesh. I carefully measured the amounts of arsenic in their food and water, but when I went to share this information with the community, they asked me questions that I was not prepared for. They didn’t want to know how I adjusted for polyatomic spectra due to the sodium or the other methodological details I struggled with to get good data – they wanted to know if the concentration of arsenic I measured in their food was safe. Should they eat that food when they are pregnant? Since I was measuring food they asked about their nutrition. To this day, I remember how uncomfortable I felt sitting in this meeting with people who had participated in my study because I could not answer their questions – and they were really good questions. I did not have the experience or the skills to have conversations about risk or thoughtfully discuss what my study could and could not answer. I felt like I really let them down because I was not prepared.
This was my wake-up moment.
In public health, we study population-level health events. This means we need to be able to explain our results back to the public in a way that they can use to improve their health.
As students, we are so focused on learning the details of our methodology that we think that is what matters to the public. When, in reality, it is the knowledge that matters most – the methodology is secondary. I think this disconnect is a function of our experience and stage in the process.
So this course gave students an opportunity to forget about the details for a bit and focus on the big picture – explaining new knowledge to the public.” – Molly Kile