Stony Brook scientists are working to better explain their projects to the general public as part of a collaboration with communications experts.
In 2016, the Institute for Advanced Computational Science won a five-year, $3 million dollar National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant. The funds have been used to create a graduate certificate program called STRIDE, meant to provide STEM graduate students with a range of interdisciplinary skills aimed at helping them learn to better explain their research.
“A lot of times scientists will use jargon, and they will use terms that they understand,” Dr. Jennifer McCauley, the STRIDE program coordinator, said. “They’re used to speaking to audiences of people like themselves, and then when they get like, to D.C. and they have to speak to someone in the position of writing policy, they don’t understand what they’re trying to communicate.”
Spurred by the need for better communication between scientists and the government, Dr. Christine O’Connell, an assistant professor of science communication at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, said the program can hopefully help lawmakers make policy based on sound science.
“We should be working together, but first we have to be able to communicate with each other, and really understand the complexity of the problems and science,” O’Connell wrote in an email. “Policy should be based on sound science, and we as scientists should make that as easy as possible by talking about and presenting our research and data in ways that are engaging and clear.”
Since the Alda Center first opened in 2009, O’Connell said she has noticed a shift in scientists’ attitudes toward the program.
“We used to have graduate students taking our class and hiding it from their advisors because they’d be upset that they weren’t in the lab, but now we have advisors requiring their graduate students to take our classes,” she said.
Joshua Comden, a recipient of the STRIDE fellowship and a Ph.D. student pursuing a degree in applied mathematics and statistics, said that the fellowship gives him space to take classes that he normally wouldn’t by making it a requirement for the fellowship.
“It’s gotten me to think about other career options, like actually being a [decision maker] within the federal government,” Comden said. “So now I’m thinking of applying for jobs and internships that are within the federal government.”
Funding for science is not going up — though a breakthrough in budget negotiations could change that, according to a Science article — and policy decisions are not being made with science in mind, O’Connell said, citing the attitude toward climate change as an example of poor communication with policy makers.
“There is probably one of the largest scientific consensuses in history around climate change, it’s 97% of scientists, we agree that it’s happening and it’s caused by people,” she said. “There’s just been a lot of miscommunication around it, a lot of false stories being spread about it, and scientists being discredited, their voices not being listened to it on the policy front, and I think that’s a shame because science is science, and science shouldn’t be political.”
Besides teaching trainees, STRIDE offers fellowships to Ph.D. students pursuing STEM-related degrees in certain departments. Fellowship recipients participate in a training program aimed at bettering science communication skills through courses and internships, and are required to regularly participate in STRIDE-related events.
According to the website, recipients receive a $34,000 stipend for one calendar year, in addition to covering all tuition and health insurance costs and $200 for books.
International students are not eligible for the fellowship, but they can still become trainees. Right now the program is only for Ph.D. students, although McCauley said that they are trying to create a program tailored to masters students.