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Research, Science

Challenging scientists to better communicate their ideas to the public

There’s an interesting Q&A in Science Insider today with actor Alan Alda about his involvement in founding the Center for Communicating Science and the center’s Flame Challenge, an initiative aimed at helping scientists better communicate their ideas to the public. This year’s challenge asks researchers to answer the question what is time? Their explanations will be judged by 11-year-olds around the world and the winner will be announced at the World Science Festival in New York City.

In the piece, Alda talks about how his passion for science evolved and his motivation to take an active role in educating researchers about conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences:

Unfortunately, I guess I was a victim of what C. P. Snow called the two cultures because when I got to high school in the 1950s I thought you had to choose between an interest in science and an interest in the arts. So I kind of dropped the interest in science until I was out of college and married and started reading Scientific American. Since my early 20s, I must have read almost every article in that magazine, mainly just trying to pick up the lingo, the way I would if I were learning a foreign language.

And then after interviewing at least 700 scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, I realized that for most of us science is a foreign language. And we need to speak the same language when scientists are talking to the public, or when they’re talking to funders and policymakers, or even when they’re talking to each other. If they’re not in the exact same field, it’s also like they’re talking to an intelligent layperson—or so I’ve been told by many scientists.

The only thing I have to offer is my love of science. I’ve picked up insights over the years into communication that I am able now to share with scientists, and it’s really wonderful. At the Center for Communicating Science, we teach graduate students in the sciences classes in communications. So when they graduate, they’ll not only be able scientists but able communicators, too. And now we’re beginning to work with senior scientists who are already communicating with the public, and who can take part in master classes so that we can get even better at communicating.

Previously: Want to become a better science communicator? Try explaining science to a child and A conversation about the importance of conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences

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