Science researchers hone their communication skills at workshop

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On Oct. 2, a group of Penn State faculty gathered with policymakers and journalists in a workshop on science communication skills.

The training was co-sponsored by the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE). This is the second science communication workshop the groups have organized and is part of an ongoing strategic initiative to improve researchers’ skills in this area.

“Recognizing that without communicating our science its impact is diminished, PSIEE and EESI collaborated last year on our first COMPASS workshop,” said Jenni Evans, acting director at PSIEE. “Its success inspired us to broaden the scope this year to encompass communications with policymakers. We look forward to the growth of a far-reaching communications effort at Penn State and are grateful to all of the organizers and participants who made it so successful.”

COMPASS is a 15-year-old national organization that is focused on improving science communication; their activities include training scientists in effective communications, hosting workshops that bring together policymakers and scientists, and organizing meetings and briefings between researchers and federal agencies or legislators. The initial 2013 training at Penn State featured Nancy Baron, a COMPASS co-founder, marine scientist and author of "Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter."

This year’s COMPASS workshop kicked off with an open lecture by COMPASS science policy trainer Chad English, who spoke to a crowd at the Freeman Auditorium on Oct. 1 about how researchers can communicate their science to an audience beyond academia and also interpret its significance in ways that may be actionable. English explained that the natural inclination for scientists is to try and craft a message that is increasingly “louder” and “splashier,” but that having their research acted upon is also contingent on political or regulatory timelines, in-person networking efforts or the editorial needs of a news reporter.

A discussion panel followed the public lecture and included David Titley, professor of meteorology at Penn State and director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, and Erik Stokstad, environmental research and policy writer at Science Magazine. All three speakers reiterated the importance of putting research findings into the context of an illustrative story, which not only helps the audience understand the significance of the science, but can help make the facts more compelling, personal or memorable over the long-term.

The full-day training workshop Oct. 2 took place at the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park, and was attended by 16 Penn State faculty with diverse research areas including geosciences, civil engineering, geography, anthropology, electrical engineering, meteorology and others. Workshop activities included lectures, discussion, “Elevator Speed Dating” and mock meeting scenarios.

"What is fascinating about these workshops is watching really smart people struggle to describe what they do in ways that reporters and policymakers can use,” said Sue Brantley, director of EESI. “We scientists are well trained to talk to scientists, but not for discussions with the public — these workshops help us learn a new kind of talking.”

Finally, on Oct. 3, Charles Lawson, geologist and secretary for the International Joint Commission, recounted his experiences on water policy issues in the Middle East and along the U.S.-Canadian border. Faculty and students from across the University were engaged in discussions on energy production, water quality, negotiation of water rights and international implementation of treaties.

PSIEE and EESI plan to collaborate on future science communications events. Those interested in receiving notification of these events can email ajs52@psu.edu.

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Last Updated May 21, 2015