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If Science Happens in Silence, Did It Happen?

• May 09, 2009 • 9:12 PM

Tom Price is blogging for Miller-McCune.com from the 3rd annual Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers.

To increase diversity in the scientific workplace, scientists need to communicate with a diverse audience, two media executives told a conference of scientists today.

“You need a public discourse, not just a discussion among scientists,” said Scott Jaschik, founder of the online news service Inside Higher Education.

“It’s so important to engage as public intellectuals,” added Frank Matthews, founder of Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine and a professor at George Mason University.

An essential way to do that, they said, is through the news media.

Potential scientists must develop their interest in science while young, Jaschik said. A college student can’t study science without having taken science courses in high school, he pointed out. Science proponents, therefore, must reach elementary and secondary teachers as well as parents, he said.

To obtain government funding for diversity efforts, Matthews and Jaschik said, scientists must influence elected officials, who are influenced by the public.

“The issues are being decided by public perception,” Jaschik said. “The question is, are your ideas in the public arena?”

“You’ve got to get out into the community,” Matthews added.

To communicate successfully, they said, scientists need to understand that the news media don’t operate like scholarly journals.

Instead of taking months or years to research, write and review a journal article, Jaschik noted, journalists operate in a “24-7 context.”

“Reporters want timeliness,” he said, so this is an excellent time to pitch stories about swine flu.

“Journalists like problems with solutions,” he added. “Here is a problem: We don’t have enough scientists. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

“Send me an example of a program that’s been working well. Send me a story about an inequity that needs exposing.”

“We like local impact,” he explained, so scientists need to explain the importance of their work to the local community.

Most journalists also are “not smart about science,” he warned, so scientists need to educate reporters about the topic at hand. “Pretend you’re at Thanksgiving dinner, explaining science to your aunt,” he suggested.

Point the reporter to non-academic articles about the subject, he said. The scientist also should provide his home or cell phone number, so the reporter can call back with additional questions later when he’s writing.

Finally, Jaschik cautioned, don’t try to dismiss an inquiring reporter with a “no comment.”

“As soon as you say ‘no comment,'” he explained, “we assume there’s a scandal.”

Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

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