Ready, set, speak!  Tips for effectively communicating your science with public audiences

About the author – Dr. Allison Coffin is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver studying acoustic communication and hearing loss. Over the past 10 years she’s taught communication workshops to a variety of scientific and professional audiences and was the Audience Choice winner at the 2014 U.S. FameLab Finals, a science communication competition hosted by NASA and National Geographic.  She runs the science communication website communicatalyst.com and am a long-time member (junkie?) of Toastmasters International.

Why communicate your science?

You’re a scientist doing important and interesting work in conservation biology, right? You probably publish your research in reputable journals and give departmental seminars, but these reach a limited (and self-selected!) audience. Do you want your research to have a broader impact?  Head the call of recent editorials by Chris Parsons and Andrew Wright, and learn to advocate for your science – get out and communicate!

Between online forums, public scientific discussions such as Science Cafés, and interactions with the 24-hr media cycle, there are more venues than ever for us to communicate our science to lay audiences. However, being willing to communicate isn’t enough. To quote a recent JCom article by van der Wurff and colleagues, “Scientists…supposedly aim for a serious and scientific style in which complex matters are unraveled and accurately explained, remaining uncertainties acknowledged, and ideas not too quickly taken for granted.” Does this sound familiar?  For many scientists, our natural inclination (or perhaps, our training) makes it difficult to step out of this “information transfer” mode to connect with our audience.  At its heart, communication is about connection.  How can scientists connect with lay audiences, so that our message is both heard and received? This article is for all scientists who want to speak to the public, advocate for their science, and build their skills so that they can connect effectively.

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Dusky Sharks: Whale Killers

It’s generally thought that baleen whales are too large to be successfully attacked by most marine predators.  Orcas are typically considered the only real predatory threat to large whales, and even they have to use teamwork to take down a young whale.  Large sharks, which also sit near the top of the marine food web, are known to scavenge on whale carcasses as a nutritious and blubbery supplement to their usual diet of fishes and smaller marine mammals.  However, evidence has been found that white sharks actually take a proactive approach to increasing the whale carcass supply by attacking live northern right whale calves.  Now researchers in South Africa directly observed dusky sharks actively teaming up to bring down a humpback whale calf.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – “A cold-water fish with a warm heart!”

OPAH, OPAH, OPAH!

Recently scientists at NOAA’s South West Fisheries Science Center made a stunning discovery, the worlds first known warm-blooded fish, the moonfish, opah  (Lampris guttatus). Until this recent discovery all fish were considered cold-blooded ectotherms – allowing their body temperature to fluctuate with the change in ambient ocean temperature. However, opah’s are different, in that these largely solitary fish regulate their internal body temperature above the ambient temperature of their environment like mammals and birds (other warm-blooded animals).

Opah off the coast of southern California. (Photo credit: Ralph Pace Photography)

Opah off the coast of southern California. (Photo credit: Ralph Pace Photography)

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Did Wyoming really just outlaw citizen science?

I first heard about the new Wyoming law #SF0012 through the Slate article summarizing it as a criminalization of citizen science. There’s a real danger that it could be interpreted and implemented that way, but let’s try and give Wyoming the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The text of the law only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners for collecting data on their land. It goes on to define what “data” means, including photographs in a fairly wide definition, and “collecting” as taking data with the intention of turning it over to a state or federal agency. It also defines trespassing and outlines the consequences for those who fail to receive permission. In short: the data collector could go to jail and their data will not be admissible in legal or policy proceedings.

At the core, the law re-hashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. The key part of the law that’s new is that the data won’t be admissible in court and the act of turning them over to federal or state agencies will make you an outlaw. Part of me thinks that data collectors, including citizen science groups, should be asking permission to go on someone’s land. This is both to keep ethics at the forefront of our scientific endeavors and for the personal safety of scientists (ranchers are known to carry shotguns, after all). Continue reading