Six Practical Guidelines for Public Engagement

The Michigan Meeting for Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse brought scholars, practitioners, and communicators to the University of Michigan from May 13 – 15, 2015 to discuss why and how scientific scholarship should contribute to issues of public importance. COMPASS’ Science Outreach Director, Nancy Baron, attended the meeting and shared her six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively. We are excited to be able to share Nancy’s remarks from the panel here on Before the Abstract.

Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.
Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.

For COMPASS, “navigating the rules of public engagement” has been an ever evolving endeavor, which we described in a paper published in PloS Biology. We not only teach the core competencies of communication, we broker relationships. We help scientists find their way into the right conversations, with the right people, at the right time. We are coaches and navigators. I have worked in the trenches for the last 15 years with hundreds of scientists, many of them conducting research in controversial fields such as fisheries, fire ecology, and climate change. Their success stories inspire me; it’s what keeps me in this line of work.

I am honored and delighted to be on this panel. One of these things is not like the others – meaning me. My fellow panelists are all academic researchers whose work COMPASS shares in our trainings, because their social science provides critical context for communicating science and informs how scientists describe and discuss their own work. I am a practitioner, not an academic, so my perspective will be a little different, but I hope, complementary.

So here are my six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively:

1)    Show your passion.

When I first started coaching scientists, there was much concern that revealing passion for what you studied was unbecoming of a scientist, even “unscientific.” It was something to be avoided. I’ve found time and again that the scientists willing to reveal a part of themselves are, by far, the most effective communicators. It’s not only the “What?” or the “How?” – what most people are interested in is the “Why?”

Why do you study what you do? Why do you care? Why does it matter to the rest of us? Communicating your “why” is a powerful way to humanize your science. Many scientists see a profound difference in how interested people are in their science, when they explain their “why.”

Susan Fiske, a Princeton University researcher, has found that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Scientists are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions. Trustworthiness, Fiske says, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence, and evidence suggests “warmth is judged before competence,” and has more impact on how people respond to what you say.

Yet as a scientist you are trained to be dispassionate, to write and speak in the passive voice. Some of the most funny and charming scientists I know suddenly become rigid and boring when they make a formal presentation. They put on their science face. And lose their audience.

From what I have seen, the most effective aspect of engagement is to be – engaging. This means being yourself. Your best self –  the self who can capture the interest of your friends and have them listen to you, spellbound.

I thought Andy Hoffman’s recent speech to graduating students at Erb was incredibly moving because he talked about what HE believed.

“So, while I may teach that we have to convince others to protect nature through self-interest, financial incentives and pragmatic reasons, I believe we have to protect it for reasons that evoke words like sacred, divine, reverence, and love.  We protect and devote ourselves to what we love.”

If you want to win the hearts and minds of the public and policymakers, you have to be forthcoming with your own.

2)    Tell stories.

“Stories are data with a soul,” says story researcher Brene Brown. They are powerful and persuasive. We remember them longer and hold them closer.  At the #AcadEng Meeting, Richard Alley gave an outstanding keynote. Everything he said was built on a bedrock of science, but it was memorable because of the stories and how he told them – his brilliant and quirky personality shining through.

3)    Find a community of support.

You can’t do it alone. You need a network of other scientists to encourage and embolden you in your efforts. I think this meeting was designed by Andy Hoffman to make this happen, both within the University of Michigan and by bringing in a broader community of experts and examples. Institutional support is essential. Reward those who do engage in outreach.  Make it part of the tenure process. This is happening in places now around the country. The Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, Lisa Graumlich (a Leopold fellow) is doing this. She tweeted us her perspective during the meeting, saying “Why not extend definition of research to include engagement as logical end product of engaged scholarship?”

4)    Find a mentor.

And my advice for young scientists, choose an advisor who not only has the academic credentials but who also shares your values to make your science matter. Pick someone who’s got your back, will guide you and will help you walk the fine lines that are especially important to young scientists. If the institution does not support these values, you might consider looking elsewhere for the leadership that will.

5)    Take the long view.

Most scientists I know who have suffered backlash have few regrets. They dust themselves off and respond with more and better science. Remember too, as poet Susan Musgrave says, “our mistakes make the best stories, and that’s why we should not think of them as failures.”

6)   I’ll end with the enduring guidance from the late, great Stanford climate scientist Steve Schneider: “Know thy audience, know thy self, know thy stuff”

 And remember that “staying out of the fray is not taking the ‘high ground’; it is just passing the buck.”

*This piece was adapted from an article originally published on May 21, 2015. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Moran Cerf: Well, That Escalated Quickly

Dr. Moran Cerf  shares a humorous anecdote about the time his team’s new publication picked up rapid-fire media coverage…for entirely the wrong reason.

An Astronomer’s Guide to Storytelling

In January 2015, Dr. Kaspar von Braun, an astrophysicist at Lowell Observatory, told his story at our Springer Nature Storytellers event in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. We asked him to share his experience and advice for future storytellers. His response can be summarized in two words; “Do it.”

On January 6, 2015, I had the honor of participating at a Springer Storyteller event in the old Town Hall in Seattle. There were about 300 people in attendance (some astronomers but largely members of the public), 5 speakers (all professional astronomers), and a team of MCs to warm up the crowd for the next speaker.AAS Show

As many astronomers can attest to, one tends to give a large number of talks in the field, normally around 45 min in length, supported by 30-60 PowerPoint slides that illustrate the subject. Not in this event, however. The goal was to tell stories, not present science: campfire over conference, so to speak. The only prop was a microphone on stage, which the speakers were told not to touch for noise reasons as the talks were being recorded as podcasts. There was no projector, no screen, no podium, no laser pointer, just you and the mic, and you had 10-15 min in which to tell your story, for which the speakers were encouraged to emphasize the personal and human aspects more than the science. I very clearly remember the moment of walking up to the microphone on stage with nothing in my hands, no computer waiting for me on some podium, and no projected talk title with my name underneath it. Adrenalin is a good drug.

To be honest, this challenge was one of the fondest memories I have of that evening: memorize a short, personal, and coherent story, and thereby not using any props at all. The single best aspect of the evening, however, was the quality of the talks given by the other speakers — I went last, and as I listened to the other speakers, I felt increasingly inadequate the closer it came time for me to talk. It turns out that I was not the only one thinking like that. Later, as we speakers enjoyed a “we did it” drink together, we all confided the exact same emotion I had felt: “Your stories are so terrific! What am I doing here???” There were serious masterpieces where you could feel that the story does not often see the light of day due to its very personal nature. Every astronomer goes through some trials and tribulations, but also quite funny experiences, on the way to being a full-time scientist, and all presentations one tends to give along the way are, by request and necessity, practically only about the science. To glimpse an insight into the personal histories and experiences of some fellow astronomers was a big honor to me and hopefully to the public audience — this is very, very rare.

I would be amiss if I did not mention the quality of the overall setting — the preparation of the event was exquisite, the mood of the audience was fantastic, and the little warm-up skits performed by the MC pair in between our talks were of high, stand-up comedian level. It was truly a humbling and at the same time adrenalin-filled experience, and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is not afraid to speak in public. The Storyteller team did a great job of preparing me to give a talk like that weeks ahead of the event, but at the same time never tried to influence what I was going to say. They just gave advice on what to emphasize.

To offer advice to anyone contemplating doing this — in two words: do it. And when you do, focus on the personal aspects and let the science take a back seat.

Interested in becoming a Springer Nature Storyteller? Visit our pitch page to submit your idea and learn more about the program and our upcoming fall shows!

Is “Cold But Competent” A Problem in Science Communication?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Liz Neeley (current Executive Director of The Story Collider) explores the perceived ‘cold’ reputations of scientists in comparison to other professionals. What is the quality we call  ‘warmth’ and how important is it to the way people view scientists and to their level of trust in science? Keep reading to find out.

A flash of insight can be profoundly pleasurable. For me it’s a little pop that’s the mental equivalent of clearing my ears while diving. Sharing that same electric sensation with hundreds of others in crowd? Then the pop feels more like a champagne bottle, with our individual ‘aha!’s spiraling outward as a fizzy wave of tweets. At the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication, Susan Fiske of Princeton University uncorked one such shared moment in her presentation about beliefs and attitudes regarding science when she began speaking about warmth and competence.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 4.25.02 PM

You can sometimes get a sense of the pulse of a meeting by watching the ebb and flow of its TweetStream. This graph shows the first day of the Sackler Colloquium. The biggest buzz was generated by Susan Fiske’s remarks, with some 900 tweets during her 90 minute session. Analysis using Topsy.

You can read the tweets sharing and reacting to Fiske’s talk here. Within the first four minutes of her presentation dissecting when and how people make decisions, Fiske told the audience that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Trustworthiness, she explained, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence. Warmth in this work is not exactly ‘likeable,’ rather, it refers to the judgments we make about person’s motives. Competence is their ability to act on those intentions. Scientists, Fiske says, are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions.

If you read our previous posts about trust in science, you know this is a topic dear to my heart. It’s also incredibly fertile ground for discussions of how we might start applying what social science tells us. Hearing Fiske talk, discussing it over lunch and coffee, and reflecting in the weeks to follow, I wanted to understand:

  • What is this quality we call ‘warmth’ and why is it important?
  • What do we know about how people view scientists in terms of warmth and competence?
  • How can we – individually and collectively – counteract ‘cold’ reputations, if that is an important and valid goal?

The Research

This 2007 review paper by Fiske et al in Trends in Cognitive Sciences caught my eye with it’s unambiguous title: “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence.” I encourage you to give it a read – the text is remarkably sharp and minces no words. Across cultures, with respect to individuals and groups, thoughts, and behaviors, warmth matters, a lot. In three quotes from the paper, here’s why:

  1. “In sum, when people spontaneously interpret behavior or form impressions of others, warmth and competence form basic dimensions that, together, account almost entirely for how people characterize others… “
  2. “Considerable evidence suggests that warmth judgments are primary: warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”
  3. “competence and warmth stereotypes combine to predict emotions, which directly predict behaviors.”

In short, Fiske et al. argue that we have “decades of experimental social psychology laboratories, election polls and cross-cultural comparisons” all telling us that our instinctive judgments of warmth explain most of how we assess strangers, happen in split seconds and are more important than our assessments of competence, and directly predict behavior. The data on how scientists are perceived is as-yet unpublished, though Fiske showed some of it at the Sackler Colloquium.

Fiske presenting data from Cydney Dupree, showing warmth and competence assessments of different professions. Science-related careers (scientist, researcher, professor, teacher) indicated in red. Photo by Liz Neeley, Creative Commons license.

Until we can take a hard look at the data, we should maintain healthy skepticism. But if it is true that scientists are seen as cold but competent, we may have a problem. My understanding is that this combination of traits can breed envy and jealousy, which psychologists link to “passive association and active harm.” When we talk about public trust or science as a brand, this is no minor issue.

It’s also important to acknowledge too that this literation about stereotype formation can lead to uncomfortable insights and hard conversations about race, gender, class, and other dimensions. Most social groups are not in the admired ‘very warm and very capable’ category. We must think carefully, and question assumptions that people are responsible for negative perceptions about them and could control those judgments if only they behaved differently. This is dangerous territory.

So What Do We Do?

We all know what it feels like to be working to make a good impression. When I asked twenty or so friends and colleagues to contribute to this post by sharing what they think signals warmth, they talked about smiling, eye contact, posture and body language, authenticity, and above all, listening to other people. This aligns with related work on impression management, finding that “when people want to appear warm, they tend to agree, compliment, perform favors, and encourage others to talk. When people want to appear competent, they emphasize their accomplishments, exude confidence, and control the conversation.” That quote comes from a paper by Holoien and Fiske with the intuitive but fascinating finding that people downplay positive impressions in the warmth dimension in order to appear more competent. Another group went so far as to include “You want to appear competent? Be mean!“ in the title of their paper. This seems to particularly relate to hypercriticism. I can’t help but think of how this manifests, for example, in journal clubs and job talks.

The bottom line for me is that if we are concerned about trust in science and perceptions of scientists, we must focus not only on competence but also – and perhaps more importantly – warmth. Rather than artificially exaggerating traits we think convey friendliness, scientists and science communicators should simply resist the tendency to emphasize their credibility at the cost of their personality. In short… perhaps the best advice is the simplest. Be yourself.

Journal Club

The methods, statistics, and theory of this kind of research is fascinating, but far outside my own expertise. We value your feedback and thoughts, so please take a look at some of the other papers that informed this post. I would love to discuss further:

*This article was originally published on October 21, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Ian Anderson: A Southern Contingency Plan

Dr. Ian Anderson must relearn what it means to project manage when he takes a job in the U.S. and moves from the South of France to a very different Southern environment.


Ian Anderson is Director of the University Partnerships and Graduate Education Programs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Dr Anderson joined the laboratory in March 2002, to become director of the Experimental Facilities Division at the SNS, leading the construction of the target facility and neutron scattering instruments, and the development of the User program. After the SNS project was completed in 2006, Dr Anderson became Director of the Neutron Scattering Science Division in the Neutron Sciences Directorate, with the responsibility of developing and managing the science programs at both the SNS and the High Flux Isotope Reactor.

Dr. Anderson is the lead series editor for the Neutron Scattering Applications and Techniques book series, as well as editor of Neutron Imaging and Applications.