What’s Missing From the Chimp Rights Case: Chimp “Testimony”

22 04 2015

A new ruling by a judge in the New York Supreme Court has opened the way for legal arguments about whether chimpanzees should have “legal personhood.” To be clear, legal personhood doesn’t mean that chimps would be voting or having coffee at the local Starbuck’s, but that they would have the right to a fulfilling life in a humane environment, just as do people. (See this essay by Natalie Prosin for an excellent discussion of the issue.)

Nonhuman Rights Project logoAnd the ruling only ordered a hearing “to show cause,” not that the court was addressing the issue of whether the chimps had a right to a writ of habeas corpus.

The case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project will be argued on both legal and scientific grounds. But I’m sure the hearing will not include “testimony” from the very creatures at the center of the controversy.

Obviously, I do not mean testimony in the sense of a chimp taking the stand, swearing on the Bible, and giving evidence. Rather, I believe that the case could be greatly informed by chimpanzees’ own spontaneous behavior—first-hand observations that go to the very heart of the case for legal personhood. I would argue that such behavior constitutes “testimony,” in that it portrays truths regarding chimpanzees that should be relevant in a court of law.

As examples, I offer my observations of chimp behavior during research for my novel Solomon’s Freedom, a fictional account of a court case seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee. (Note: Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, advised on the book.)

To research the novel, my wife Joni and I spent several weeks in The Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center, watching the chimps involved in numerical cognition research by psychologist Sally Boysen.

Negotiating a paycheck

In a typical research session, a chimp would take his (or her) place on a platform on the other side of a Plexiglas boysen5window from Sally or another researcher. In front of the chimp would be a touch screen, and Sally would present number problems requiring the chimp to pick the right answer by touching the screen. For a correct answer, the chimp would get a candy that Sally inserted through a small hole in the window.

Working for a reward is not unusual in such studies. But what I thought was most telling was the “negotiation” that followed the research session.

At the end of the session would come a “payday,” in which Sally would take a paper bag over to a cabinet in sight of the chimp and proceed to put more goodies into the bag for the chimp. But the chimp was no chump. Sally would drop a few treats into the bag, and if the chimp didn’t think the pay was sufficient, he would give a decided negative shake of the head. So, Sally would add a few more goodies. Only when the chimp decided the “pay” was sufficient would he deem it acceptable with a nod of the head.

Browsing a magazine

Then there was the “magazine incident.” One day, I was standing near one of the chimps’ outdoor cages, and he emerged carrying a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up one foot on his knee and leaf through the magazine, uttering appreciative grunts. Was he actually looking at a magazine, or only mimicking something he’d seen humans do?

Sally said that chimps did, indeed, like to look at the pictures in magazines, and did seem to recognize them as images of real objects.

In fact, Sally’s experiments demonstrated more rigorously that chimps can grasp abstractions. In one study, the researchers hid a toy Coke can in a model of the chimps’ playroom. They then released the chimp into the real playroom, and the chimp was, in many cases, able to immediately retrieve the Coke from its hiding place.

While most portrayals of chimps show them as violently screaming or passively munching food or lounging, we did see instances of the same kind of curiosity that humans display.

For example, one day Joni was planting flowers outside one of the outdoor cages, when a chimp approached, sat down and proceeded to quietly watch her at her work. She explained to the chimp what she was doing, and the chimp would periodically amble off and return to resume watching. After a while, Joni became intent on her gardening, no longer talking to the chimp. The chimp went away and shortly returned.

He then launched a mouthful of water across a distance of several feet into Joni’s face. Whether it was a demand for attention, a joke, or an aggressive act, it was clearly a strategic act of communication by a deliberative creature.

Getting darted

However, perhaps the most telling bit of “testimony” about chimp behavior relevant to legal personhood was the episode I witnessed of the chimp Bobby being tranquilized. Bobby had developed a cough, and the researchers wanted to make sure it wasn’t pneumonia. So, he had to be anesthetized with a tranquilizer dart gun, to be given a chest x-ray and health exam.

When Sally approached the cages with the dart gun, an enormous uproar rose among the chimps. According to Sally, it was the standard panicked response, because the chimps knew that one of them was about to be darted.

She approached a nervous Bobby and said, “Now, I’m going to have to dart you, so show me your rump.” It was important for Bobby to present his rump, so the dart would safely hit a fleshy part of his body.

Bobby complied, turning his rump toward Sally. She fired. The dart bounced off Bobby’s thick hide.

“Bring me the dart,” she instructed.

Bobby brought her the dart and once again turned his rump to her. She reloaded and fired again. This dart embedded itself into Bobby’s thigh.

“Now pull out the dart and bring it to me,” Sally instructed. Bobby obeyed.

“Now you’re going to go to sleep, so lay down,” she said. This command was important so that Bobby wouldn’t climb to a place where falling would injure him, Bobby laid down and was soon unconscious.

Such “testimony” revealing such evocative behaviors will not likely find its way into court proceedings to decide whether chimpanzees deserve legal personhood.

But it should.

(Notes: See this list of resources for further background on chimpanzee research and the case for legal personhood. Dr. Boysen’s laboratory was closed by the university in 2006.)

“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.

“Marketing for Scientists” Charts a Path to Success

1 04 2012

The new book Marketing for Scientists belongs, not on every scientist’s bookshelf, but on their desk! It’s a useful, savvy guide for scientists on how to market their work and themselves, to the benefit of their career, their field, and science in general.

As author Marc Kuchner points out, scientists certainly need to learn marketing, given the uphill battle they face in publishing papers, winning grants, and getting jobs. And society needs scientists to market science, given such adversaries as climate change and evolution deniers, and those who cling to the dangerous myth that vaccines cause autism.

Wisely, Kuchner begins the book by correcting the misconception that “marketing” is a dubious business of selling snake oil. That’s an outdated definition of the word, he points out, offering a new definition that any scientist would be comfortable with:

Marketing is the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them.

Few scientists realize it, but they are already “marketing” each time they talk to a colleague, publish a paper, deliver a talk, or do just about any other communication. However, in my opinion, the vast majority are abysmally poor at these communications, because they do not heed Kuchner’s definition and consider the needs of their “customers.”

For example, he points out that the very basic concept of giving good customer service is an invaluable marketing tool. This service can be as basic as answering emails and phone calls promptly, and arriving at meetings on time.

However, Kuchner’s techniques extend far beyond etiquette coaching. He explains strategies for turning people who have never heard of your work into advocates. And again, it’s not snake-oil-selling he advocates, but clear honest communications and building relationships. He points out that “There are walls between universities, walls between research groups, walls between one scientist and another.” He asserts that “Each wall between scientific subcultures can only be penetrated by a real, organic human relationship.”

He also offers sound advice on “branding”—another word that might give scientists pause. But he uses the modern definition of branding as “the set of all expectations consumers have about a company or product.” And his strategies aim at helping scientists build their brand; achieving a reputation for creativity and quality. What scientist could possibly object to that!

In his book, Kuchner parses “customers” whom scientists are trying to reach—e.g. students, junior scientists, senior scientists, funding agency staff, and press officers—and details their concerns and how to meet them.

Kuchner also offers practical marketing techniques for getting job offers, writing proposals, producing papers, benefiting from conferences, giving talks, and using email and the internet effectively. And again, these techniques are based on communication skills, not on the old concept of marketing as crass salesmanship.

He also offers excellent insight into communicating science to the public and to legislators, and to marketing science itself to a public that all-too-often harbors wrongheaded myths about science and scientists.

As a final summary “cheat sheet,” he offers a list of marketing tips for scientists. Here are a few choice ones:

  • When you communicate with people, use their names.
  • Carry a prop; tell a story.
  • Everyone is wondering What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)
  • Creating new research questions is as good for your career as answering old ones.
  • Promote your Signature Research Idea and it will promote you; promote the idea, not yourself.
  • Focus your research; become the go-to person in your subfield.
  • Make videos about your work and put them online.

Webinar: Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media

11 06 2010

Physics World bannerHere is a link to the webinar  “Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media,” which I  gave on June 9, 2010, as part of the Physics World webinar series.Margaret Harris

The moderator was Margaret Harris, Reviews and Careers Editor for Physics World, and who I’m very proud to say is a (highly talented!) former science writing student of mine. Margaret studied physics at Duke and then did a PhD in atomic physics at Durham University in the UK.

The webinar description:

Your career success depends not only on doing good work. You must also explain that work to important audiences: your colleagues, funding officers, donors, your institution’s leaders, students, your own family and friends, journalists, and the public. Dennis Meredith will offer invaluable tips on using new media technologies to engage those audiences in a clear and compelling way.

Please Explain: Training Scientists to Be Better Communicators

17 05 2010

This commentary was published May 16, 2010, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required)

When it comes to persuading the American public about some of the most controversial issues of our time, today’s scientists too often get failing grades. Gallup polls show that only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution, for example, while 48 percent say global warming is exaggerated and 46 percent say temperature increases are not due to human activity. And despite many recent court rulings asserting that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, far too many parents still cling to that dangerous belief and refuse to have their children vaccinated.

Certainly some unscientific views arise from religious and political beliefs, but there’s another reason for such wrongheaded convictions, as well as for the public’s lack of scientific knowledge: Science suffers from its lack of a culture of explanation.

Scientists and engineers tend to communicate poorly in public controversies because—compared with, say, doctors and lawyers—their professions have not valued explanation. Their career advancement doesn’t depend on having lay-level explanatory skills. To progress professionally, scientists really need only to explain their work technically to other scientists—their colleagues, department heads, and granting agencies. But imagine what would happen to a doctor who couldn’t explain diseases to patients, or a lawyer who couldn’t explain the law to clients and juries. Their careers would be over.

A lack of public-communication skills also means that scientists and engineers do not think strategically about how to make their research work to their best professional advantage. For example, in 40 years as a research communicator at universities including the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Duke University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I never heard a researcher ask, “Who needs to know about my discovery?”

A class is not a “lay audience”

Many academic scientists might consider themselves expert explainers because a significant part of their job entails explaining research to undergraduates in their teaching. But even the most skillful scientist-teachers aren’t necessarily skilled science explainers. Speaking to “captive” student audiences is very different from communicating with any other lay audience, who often must be actively persuaded to be interested in a scientific topic.

Unfortunately, most science and engineering educators don’t even realize they need improvement. They don’t appreciate the potential benefits of communication training, so such training remains extremely rare on most college campuses. The result is that their students, too, graduate without knowing how to give a compelling public talk, write an interesting popular article, or create an engaging Web site. That puts them at a disadvantage in the job market because employers rank communication skills high in qualities they look for in an employee, according to Job Outlook 2015, the survey of employer organizations by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

[I sought to help remedy the lack of communication skills by publishing my Explainiing Researchbook Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010).]

Science would not have such a cultural deficit if scientists and those who educate them took a broader view of the value of communications than just immediate career advancement. They need to appreciate that their lack of skill and interest in lay-level communications limits their ability to reach audiences crucial to the success of their own research and their field. Such audiences include nonscientist administrators, potential collaborators in other disciplines, legislators, and donors. But even scientists’ communications with their own colleagues are less effective than they should be. By using the same skills that grab the attention of the local civic club or readers of a popular magazine, scientists could easily improve their seminars and papers.

Learning lay language

Yet scientists seldom bother to emerge from their cloistered realm of jargon to learn “lay language.” They often miss even the simplest and most obvious opportunities to advance the scientific point of view in the public mind by merely adjusting scientific vernacular. Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired magazine, suggests that scientists could short-circuit one of creationists’ major arguments against evolution—that evolution is only a theory—simply by changing “theory of evolution” to “law of evolution.” “It performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu,” he explains. “If someone says, ‘I don’t believe in the theory of evolution,’ they may sound fairly reasonable. But if someone announces, ‘I don’t believe in the law of evolution,’ they sound insane. It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I don’t believe in the law of gravity.'”

Similarly, scientists need to rethink their use of the term “believe” in talking to lay audiences, writes the theoretical physicist Helen Quinn in Physics Today: “For most people a belief is an article of faith; a hypothesis or a theory is not much different from a guess. … When a person hears ‘scientists believe,’ he or she may hear it as a statement of faith or a suggestion of uncertainty. Neither is what we intend.” She suggests that scientists would strengthen their authority by replacing “We believe” with “Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that,” or even “We know that.”

Beyond scientists’ being linguistically tone-deaf, their lack of a culture of explanation makes them strategically maladroit when explaining their work to lay audiences. Rather than tailoring their arguments to their audiences, they tend to believe that merely presenting the facts of their work will lead audiences to see the light on such issues as evolution.

Dismal media coverage of science

Scientists’ reluctance to become activist-explainers of their work is one reason for the dismal coverage of research in the news media. Science coverage on the nightly news is so infinitesimally small as to be journalistic “noise”—a couple of percent of total coverage, according to the “State of the News Media” studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Such poor coverage closes an important gateway to science for the public, making people far less likely to understand the importance of scientific findings or consider the possibility of careers in science.

Despite poor news-media coverage, people are interested in science—so scientists don’t have lack of interest as an excuse for their failure to engage the public. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80 percent of Americans reported they were very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries.

Scientists may also be reluctant to enter the public arena because of a wrongheaded belief that lay audiences have a low opinion of them. For example, I once heard the director of a national lab declare to reporters at a scientific meeting that the public disparages scientists as socially inept, unattractive, or villainous. Yet in a 2006 Harris Poll, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), and scientists (77 percent) far more than journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, “more Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.”

Communication courses needed

Establishing a culture of explanation to capitalize on people’s natural interest in science would not be difficult. Better education and support for lay-level communication are essential first steps. “Communication for Scientists” courses should become a standard component of science and engineering curricula. Such courses need not be onerous additions to students’ workloads—a semester-long course would be enough to introduce them to basic techniques of explaining their work to the public. To help faculty scientists and engineers, universities should offer one-day seminars aimed at honing lay-level communication skills.

Also, more scientific associations should follow the lead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society in establishing programs to encourage scientists’ public involvement. The AAAS operates a Center for Public Engagement With Science & Technology, and the ACS has established a Chemistry Ambassadors program. Those efforts support scientists with workshops and information about how to explain their work to students, lawmakers, journalists, and other important groups.

Scientists and engineers may argue that they are too busy to engage the public. Certainly, the demands of running experiments, publishing papers, writing grants, and managing a laboratory are considerable. But researchers will inevitably need to explain their work at some point—on their laboratories’ Web sites, in reports to administrators, in research descriptions for government agencies, and so on. By applying only a bit more effort and attention, they can make those explanations far more effective for lay audiences. They should also use a “strategy of synergy” to make one communication piece—like a news release or feature article—serve many purposes and audiences.

As the former AAAS President John Holdren—now President Obama’s science adviser—asserted in his address at the association’s 2007 meeting: Scientists and technologists need to “improve their communication skills so that they can convey the relevant essence of their understandings to members of the public and to policy makers. … I believe that every scientist and technologist should tithe 10 percent of his or her professional time and effort to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities. The challenges demand no less.”

A Champion of Engineering Makes an Eloquent Case

14 05 2010

Engineer/Author Henry Petroski, in more than a dozen books, has taken readers on engrossing adventures into subjects ranging from the pencil to collapsing bridges. In his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science The Essential EngineerAlone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, Petroski eloquently challenges a fundamental and profound bias in our society—the relegation of engineers and engineering to second-class status among professions.

Even though every manmade object—including the computer on which you read this review—was invented by engineers, they remain all-but-invisible in the media and in the public conscious. For example, an analysis by researchers Deborah Illman and Fiona Clark of two decades of research coverage in The New York Times found that mentions of science and scientists consistently outnumbered by two to one mentions of engineers and engineering.

In The Essential Engineer, Petroski traces the roots of the perceived primacy of science over engineering, declaring that

…our Western Platonic bias has it that ideas are superior and prerequisite to things. Hence, scientists who deal in ideas, even ideas about things, tend to be viewed as superior to engineers who deal directly in things. This point of view has no doubt contributed to the mistaken conclusion that science must precede engineering in the creative process.

In America, the origins of the science-before-engineering bias arose in the 1940s, when science administrator Vannevar Bush promulgated a simplistic linear model of science and engineering “that put research before development in name, status, fact, and deed.”

Petroski demonstrates the fallacy of this model by pointing out that technologies including the steam engine, powered flight and rockets “provide incontrovertible evidence for technology leading science. Basic research, in short, has long been suggested and motivated by and intertwined with technological development–and often has been led by it.”

In short, he writes, R&D could just as well be D&R, and “both R&D and D&R are really linked segments of a long and continuing line of interdependent activities and results. Perhaps we should speak of R&D&R, or even longer strings of D’s and R’s, as if they were part of an industrial genome.”

“Science is a tool of engineering,” writes Petroski, “and as no one claims that the chisel creates the sculpture, so no one should claim that science makes the rocket. Relying on nothing but scientific knowledge to produce an engineering solution is to invite frustration at best and failure at worst.”

What’s more, he writes,”…engineering and technology often precede science, because so many instruments and devices are needed to carry out the experiments essential to making scientific observations and testing scientific hypotheses.”

The media in general, and not just The New York Times, have done their part to minimize the importance of engineers, writes Petroski who suggests that “…as a way of dismissing their individuality…that engineers are often subsumed by careless journalists and layperson into the general rubric of scientist.”

Petroski also addresses the interchangeable use of “engineers” and “scientists” in newspaper headlines, asking “…could it be promulgated—if unwittingly—by science writers and reporters in the media whose members have overwhelmingly studied science rather than engineering in college?”

One problem, points out Petroski, is that too many of engineering’s accomplishments are “underground, behind architectural facades and associated with other professions.” Another problem is that when engineers are placed front and center in media coverage, it too often tends to be in the context of disaster.

The Essential Engineer is far from a negative screed, though. Petroski deftly describes the optimistic, challenging, rewarding nature of engineering, declaring that “The design of engineering structures is a creative process in the same way that paintings and novels are the product of creative minds. ” He writes that

Scientists also warn us of the entropic disasters associated with climate change, asteroid strikes, and the like, but warnings are not solutionsnor are they necessarily a death knell. It will be the optimistic engineers who hear the warnings not as doomsday scenarios but as calls to tackle significant problems.

And as for the complexity of engineering’s challenges, Petroski emphasizes that the profession entails more than a rote designing of widgets:

The engineering of things is “pervaded by choice,” something that cannot be easily said about science or even engineering science, to which the natural and made world are givens. Whatever scientists may wish, they cannot credibly propose a theory of motion that does not comport with the facts of the universe.

In a declaration that might surprise many unfamiliar with engineering, Petroski cites its connection with humanities, declaring that “… it behooves scientists and engineers to be connected with the cultures of the humanities and social sciences. Solutions to global problems must take into account matters of humanity and society…. The goal, after all, is not science and engineering for their own sake, but for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants.”

To demonstrate the richness of engineering, Petroski takes the reader through a tour of technologies as seen through the eyes of an engineer, including speed bumps and humps, dams, climate change, “geoengineering” of the earth to combat climate change, renewable energy, nanotechnology, robotics, structural earthquake engineering, hurricane protection, airline accidents, the electric power grid, evolution of the automobile, and “financial engineering.”

And, he firmly establishes engineering’s place in solving the daunting problems such as climate change and energy shortage, facing humanity, writing “In the final analysis, it will be engineering that possesses the same qualities involved in accomplishing the great achievements of the last century that will be the key ingredient in a solution.”

The Essential Engineer—an accessible, enjoyable tour of engineering—is essential reading, not only for engineers and students, but for all of us who benefit from the vast wealth of technology that makes modern life possible.

Researchers, Do You Need Communication Training? Some Answers:

16 03 2010

In Explaining Research, I strongly recommend that scientists and engineers consider communication training. To give a better idea of the nature and benefits of such training, I asked an expert—Carol Schadelbauer, Vice President, Health & Science Advocacy at Burness Communications—to address questions researchers typically ask about the process. Carol is director of the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute, which has successfully enhanced the communication skills of  many hundreds of scientists and health professionals. I think you’ll find her answers a terrific guide:

I give seminars all the time, and I teach undergraduate classes. Why would I need communication training?

Experience teaching or giving seminars is both a blessing and a curse. It means you’re probably comfortable speaking to others (including large groups), which is a hurdle that many have to overcome.  The curse comes from the fact that you are used to a “captive” audience that is already interested in your work—in great detail!  The structure of classroom teaching lends itself to “lectures” not to “the bottom line.”  Opportunities to speak with media or decision makers almost never last as long as you’d like and rarely follow the path you expect.

Excellent communications training should refine the all-too-rare skill of describing your work and its importance in a concise, effective and memorable way. You’ll learn that audience matters and must be identified before you prepare messages. But how do your messages stand out above the noise of the barrage of news, advertising and requests? Your job is to make your work and your message rise above this cacophony and motivate people with power, resources and a platform to act. Training enables you to do this and helps you be prepared for the unexpected.

I don’t talk to the media very much. Would training still help me?

Whether you’re talking with reporters, policymakers, funders, stakeholders, the public or your grandmother or brother, this type of experience is not to be missed. Learning to be memorable with impact is a valuable life lesson that can have a powerful effect on so many people. Adding clarity and a sense of urgency to your work will engage a whole new cadre of supporters, allies and even champions.  Perhaps more importantly, communications skills can also teach you how to proactively engage with media. After all, if you aren’t out there communicating the importance of your work, who will be? And more importantly, will they be doing so accurately?

What do training sessions typically consist of?

Trainings teach what to say and how to say it. They teach how to stay in control and not let the interviewer or questioner take over. Most importantly, they teach you how to be impactful, and if necessary, persuasive in any important situation.

Trainings through the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute range from a few hours to four days to a several-week course and are designed for health professionals, researchers, scientists, students and a host of other types of advocates.  They are designed to be as engaging and practical as possible. Our whole goal is to equip you to be as memorable as possible. We work with large and small groups and individuals. We often use cameras to focus on delivery skills and hone in on messages. We role play with one-on-one interviews, talk shows, remote interviews, policymaker meetings, testifying before legislative committees, and even mock cocktail parties.

What are some of the main communication problems or misconceptions you see in people you’re training?

What we love about researchers is that they have a passion for their work that is infectious. However, one of the biggest challenges is that more often than not, we see incredibly passionate and articulate researchers assume the role of a serious and often detached academic when they meet with reporters, policymakers and other stakeholders.  They are compelled to be boring because of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing; fear that their peers will think less of them; fear that the reporter will take things out of context. The best way to avoid this is to ask these questions in preparation for an interview:  Why did I go into this field of work?  Why am I driven toward this scientific discovery? Humanizing you and your science by opening your audience up to your passions is a highly effective tool that results in immediate engagement with your audience, and instant credibility. Be yourself and have fun.

One other area stands out among researchers and health experts: They love process. But the media does not. It takes “process” to do science—from hypothesis, to methodology, to results to conclusion. Reporters, policymakers and most everyone really just want the bottom line. What happened?  What were your results?  And also, what does this mean to me? Why should I care about this right now? We tell folks to obsess about accuracy (always be honest!), but let go of precision. Forget the details in between. And please leave your jargon at the door! Use simple, vivid words!

How do I know when I’m “trained?”

The most common feedback we get at the end of a training session is this: “I wish I had this training years ago.”  Or, “Graduates students need this. Early-career professionals need this. Senior researchers need this!” Like any skill, there is no point at which you’re “done” learning. And this stuff takes practice and lots of it. But you’ll know when you’re ready for an interview or important meeting or presentation if you’ve adequately prepared messages, and drilled yourself (or asked someone to drill you) on the toughest questions you imagine you’d ever get. As one broadcast journalist has said, if an intelligent 12-year-old could understand what you’ve said, then you’re ready!

How have others found the training useful?

We’re lucky to have a chance to track some of those we’ve trained by coaching them after their trainings. We can put their training skills into practice. Some have increased confidence in their abilities to do media interviews and have done so. Others have advocated for increased funding with state and federal policymakers with success. Some have convinced a donor to provide the seed money for a new project. Some found their voice by using persuasive skills and memorable words to move their field’s leadership in a new direction—one that may impact and benefit patients and their families. One doctor told us that the training “set me on a path I couldn’t have imagined.  [He] will use these skills forever.”

What resources do you recommend to help me learn more about communications?

There are a lot of great books on message, communications skills and more, including Explaining Research by Dennis. Another that comes to mind is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, which gives great real-life examples and tips for communicating clear ideas that are memorable!

But the most important thing to do is be a student of the media and of messages. What quotes and messages worked and didn’t work on television, in print and on radio? Why? What would you have done differently? This is a great daily exercise to develop your communications skills. Occasionally you may want to take the “bar stool test,” once described to us by one of our trainees. Sit down next to someone on a swiveling stool, and if they swivel their stool away from you after you start talking about your work, you’ll need some more practice!

Our Burness Institute blog, “Above the Noise”, attempts regularly to “be a student” of the good and bad of communications we read, hear and see every day.  Check it out.