In 2020, scientists all over the world found themselves on the frontlines of science communication whether they wanted to or not, whether they were equipped to or not. On issues ranging from vectors to viral evolution and mRNA to masking, they put their messages out into the world, desperately hoping they would land. The results were… highly variable.
For people who are so adamantly rigorous in their work, it’s ironic that most scientists working in public engagement are almost entirely reliant on gut instincts for how to do it. Those instincts are shaped by years of training to believe that a reasoned, robust argument, backed by the right evidence, is what we need—and all we need—to change minds. With just a little more scientific literacy and more corrections of falsehoods, we can achieve our goals of educating, of getting the information out there. Right? We just need to write more op-eds, make more podcasts, say the messages one more time, maybe a little louder… yeah?
Public engagement training does exist, and the instincts and trainings that focus on just doing more of the same old stuff aren’t entirely unhelpful—but they fall desperately short. We cannot afford to keep failing. What we need is to deeply reflect on our assumptions and rethink the terms and premises of our science communication.
And now we’re going to do exactly that.
When the SolvingFor community began, it started by mapping out the change it hoped to see: a world in which engagement is part of scientific upbringing and is valued. “When 50 or 60 of us sat down to express that we felt that we needed to engage more, we realized that this is not a commonly taught aspect of being a scientist” says Max Krummel, Professor at UCSF and a co-founder of SolvingFor. “And it was clear to us after the pandemic that this gap in our ability to share what we learn with society directly threatened much of what we are actually working for. We realized we needed to find a way for this to become part of our training and our culture”
These discussions translated into the first iteration of our SolvingFor process—resulting in Ideas that centered on “humanization of scientists,” “a course that institutions could use to teach science communication,” and “ongoing engagement… we need to be there when [the public] wants something from us.” Through our Idea Engines, which transform Ideas into action, these Ideas coalesced into our Campaign:
A brand new, customized professional development course, that in 10 contact hours resets scientists’ approach to public engagement. This intervention combines both theory and practice to build foundational knowledge in the science of science communication—tapping into logic, emotions, awe, risk, and sensemaking—while emphasizing self-authorship and reflexive practice. Bringing in expertise from the social sciences and lived experience, it will challenge pre-existing attitudes, norms, and assumptions to help scientists become more effective and strategic as they grow into science communication practitioners.
This course, co-developed by Liz Neeley and Charlotte Vaughan, will be provided as SolvingFor’s first Campaign: a pilot for the SolvingFor community.
Liz’s approach for this course is founded in decades of experience both practicing and learning in this space: “Scientists must let go of this persistent assumption that public engagement is about winning arguments. Short-term, antagonistic approaches fail everyone. What scientists collectively need to do is make new connections, invest in relationships, and respond to the needs of our communities. And then, in the times when we are confronted with a truly ugly fight, we need to pick our battles and win them. No course could build out all the skills needed for every scenario, but this one gives each participant a solid foundation to build from.”
Our membership and board proudly greenlit this Campaign on June 2, and the course will be taught by Liz Neeley in late summer 2023. Its effects will be captured and evaluated to measure its efficacy; then we will continue to iterate, share our findings, and hope to expand into a train-the-trainers model to spread this practice throughout the scientific community.
Campaign Lead: Liz Neeley
Contributing Members: Charlotte Vaughn (co-author of the curriculum), Casey Burnett, Stacie Dodgson, Ananda Goldrath, Sue Kaech, Cindy Leifer, Gabe Murphy, and Marion Pepper.