Reporters could do better, but isn't it also the scientists’ responsibility to help distill complex scientific issues for the rest of us? Ten years ago, Jane Lubchenco, Obama’s pick to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, created the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University to sharpen scientists’ communication skills. Pam Matson is the current director. She says scientists have a lot to learn about getting their message across.
PAM MATSON: Well, I think it’s a special problem of scientists because we are taught how to communicate with one audience, and that is our audience, other scientists. We're taught to provide lots of background information. We focus on the details of how we do the research, the uncertainty around our results, and then only at the very end do we talk about the conclusions, the bottom line. And so, I think most of us have to be taught to turn that around if we're talking to the public, talking to decision makers of any sort, to put the bottom line up front.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re trying to get them to talk in inverted pyramids?
PAM MATSON: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that’s exactly right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you teach them at your program?
PAM MATSON: First of all we encourage them to think about who the audience is, to not allow themselves to be invited to speculate on things that they're not comfortable speculating about, and we encourage them to take the time to organize their thoughts. It’s surprising that one of the most ah-ha moments is when you realize you can say to a journalist, I'm sorry, I can't talk right now, but what’s your deadline and can I get right back to you about that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand you do simulations.
PAM MATSON: Yes. The scientists work with real journalists. They practice one-on-one with a microphone in their face to simulate the real situation. Then the journalists give our fellows feedback so that they can improve next time around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it’s often been noted that the culture of science and that of journalism collide over the matter of narrative; that is, reporters crave a story with a beginning and middle and an end whereas science is a process, which is why readers can find themselves assaulted with a succession of stories along the lines of coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you. Do you deal with that sort of core cultural conflict?
PAM MATSON: I don't think that we completely break that culture down, but we spend a lot of time introducing the fellows to the world of journalists, help them understand what constraints they're understand, their time constraints, their edit or editing constraints and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, this is a relatively elite program. Only about 20 fellows go through it each year. How many fellows have you got out there right now?
PAM MATSON: We have 134 fellows now trained, and we link that network with the best of the scientific journalists in the country so that they become a resource for those journalists. Also, we've developed a set of tools that the fellows can use in training others of their colleagues and their students in their own universities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You call it a camp. Is it like camp?
PAM MATSON: Well, the camp plays out in two different ways.