Research!America, together with Pfizer and the University of Maryland, had an impressive lineup of scientists and journalists on the panels of the Maryland-based Research Partners Forum, “Let Me Be Clear: Science Journalism in the Age of the Genome and Twitter,” Wednesday at the National Press Club.
The forum aimed to generate an interactive dialogue about the ways journalists and scientists can work together in the evolving environments of both fields.
Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, began the event by presenting the results of a new Maryland-based poll commissioned by Research!America about science and journalism.
Susan Dentzer, editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and a Research!America board member, moderated two panels of experts.
The first panel included Kevin Klose, dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland; Maggie Fox, technology and health care managing editor at the National Journal; Vickie Freimuth, PhD, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication; Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association and a Research!America board member; Gardiner Harris, public health reporter for The New York Times; and Margaret Anderson, executive director of FasterCures.
Dentzer opened the first panel by asking how best to communicate scientific progress and discoveries in 140 characters or less, as Twitter demands. Anderson’s response was simple, but enlightening: Communicate frequently, update your message and speak in plain English.
“Just dive in, is my approach,” Anderson said.
Who knew it could be so simple?
Of course, that’s not all there is to it. More often than not, scientific findings come in the form of complicated statistics that aren’t always easy for the non-scientific public to understand. What’s more, communication is black and white, while science is often shades of gray. Communicating scientific uncertainty was another topic discussed by the panel. How can it be done? A clear answer didn’t emerge. It’s a tough problem to tackle, but the important thing is that it’s being talked about. Strides are being made.
The second panel included Jack Watters, MD, vice president for external medical affairs at Pfizer and a Research!America board member; Alice Park, senior science reporter at TIME Magazine; Elie Dolgin, PhD, news editor at Nature Medicine; E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland; Robert Gold, PhD, founding dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health; and Carol Rogers, PhD, professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Early in the second panel discussion, Reece made a keen observation: We have two groups that would like to be linked: science and journalism. We need to bridge that gap. Piggybacking off of that, Rogers pointed out that neither field can do it alone; they must work together.
Park noted that in this age of the Internet, where anyone can talk about anything, journalists need to help the public understand why scientific results may contradict and why journalists choose the sources they do when reporting a scientific finding. In other words, journalists must make critical scientific discoveries understandable to the public.
“What we [journalists] decide to report on indicates to you that it’s important,” Park said.
But journalists aren’t 100% responsible for communicating scientific messages – scientists themselves must do some of that, too. Watters contended that if you look for scientists to communicate, you’ll find that most of them want to, but they must be given the tools to do so. Scientists must be trained to communicate. Luckily, Rogers said, there’s been a dramatic increase in nonprofits offering communication training to scientists.
As one panelist noted, it’s important for scientists not to think of communicating with the public as “dumbing it down,” instead, think of it as making the information more accessible.
Park and Rogers concluded the final Q&A session with a suggestion for communicating science information: They called attention to the need to make science accessible in a very human way. The public appreciates it more when they have some kind of connection to the science, Park said – a theme also echoed in the first panel.
In his concluding remarks, Gold made it clear that the forum identified the need for individuals who are trained in both journalism and science.
One thing is for sure: “If you lose the communications battle … game over,” Anderson said.
Pfizer, the University of Maryland, APHA and FasterCures are Research!America members.