Advice from the Alliance for Science
The Plant Pathology Graduate Student Club brought Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, to K-State in April 2018. During her visit, Evanega met with a number of students and faculty and delivered a talk about the challenges of effective science communication and advocacy in agricultural science to meet the mission of increasing global food security, improving sustainability and gender equity, and raising the global quality of life.
Evanega also sat down to discuss associated issues with Sarah Hancock from the Kansas Science Communication Initiative. Below is an edited excerpt from the discussion.
What are the barriers to effective science communication?
One of the barriers is that in science and as scientists, we spend so much time trying to get perfect data. We’re invested in the data and we’re so excited about the data, but most people don’t share that experience. We know the data are important and the science is so important, but if we want to connect to audiences, we have to humanize the science! The data have to be contextualized in story. Humans evolved telling stories and are moved to action by the stories of others. If we want to deliver the data and the science and the information, we have to package it in the story.
At Alliance for Science, we work in a controversial space with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. We have to work toward some big solutions in climate change and food security. You’re already walking into a toxic environment. It’s easy to sell fear, but it’s harder to explain science. It’s hard to have a captive audience. Selling fear and saying ‘say no to something’ is simple. ‘GMO OMG’ is a very simple message. It’s harder to have a nuanced, science-based message on something as complicated as biology.
How do you talk about the importance of peer review and the intricacies of biology when you have only a few seconds of someone’s attention on social media? The fear imagery is so much more attention-grabbing than the science imagery. Even when we are successful in helping a reporter tell a story that’s well written and factually correct, if they use an image of a tomato with a syringe in it, it negates the words along with it.
How can universities offer more support in building science communication skills?
I think that the first thing scientists need to recognize is that we live in a very different world now. Young scientists get this: you have to build up your own brand. Your publication record and your research questions are absolutely important, but the use of social media to do ‘digital extension’ is a great opportunity. There’s opportunity for scientists to build audiences and reach the public directly. Institutions can help scientists recognize the importance of engaging in social media to get good information out there and also humanize what a scientist looks like. We need to show the human side of scientists.
The opportunity to build trust with the public by being human and being successful is there. It’s also good for the university to have scientists who feel equipped to engage with the media. You can make a small investment to equip and empower scientists to speak to media. Once a journalist finds a good source at the university who can speak in relatable terms, they are likely to go back to that source. It’s a good investment for a researcher — and an institution — to make.
What role models do you look to in agricultural sciences?
Alison Van Eenennaam from UC Davis. She’s an animal biotechnologist who is tireless in her engagement with diverse communities about biotechnology. She has spent a lot of time helping people young and old understand the science behind this complicated topic.
What special science communication challenges affect agriculture, and how can we inspire more agricultural scientists to engage?
In agriculture, we have great shoulders to stand on and a great role model in Dr. Norman Borlaug. Most ag researchers admire and look up to him. He was not just a scientist, but an incredible communicator and a man on message, and he pushed the message until he achieved the impact he desired. Whether it was to policymakers, to other scientists, or to funders, he was relentless in pushing a pro-science and pro-food security message. We can look to that message and that impact on billions of lives that are quoted to have been saved by his work. Without science communication and advocacy, the green revolution never would have happened and impacted those farmers across Asia. It’s a beautiful example — maybe the best example — of how you have to carry the research through to have impact and move beyond the bench, the lab, and the field.
We have an enormous challenge of feeding 9-10 billion people by 2050, and we have to do that in the face of climate change. The challenge becomes even greater because agriculture contributes to climate change. It’s our challenge and responsibility as plant and agricultural scientists to help people understand how technology can help us address this challenge. There are applications of biotechnology, for example, that can help us meet those needs and address those insults of agriculture on the environment: topsoil loss, conserving water, using fewer chemicals, and so on.
So the idea is that sometimes our values are in conflict: If ensuring that people around the world have equitable access to food and resources is important to you, you have to wrestle with the fact that you have to get on board with sustainable intensification. If climate change is a problem for you, you might have to give up grass-fed, free-range beef and eat the most efficiently produced meat—from a feedlot.
How can we talk about hot-button issues such as climate change? Can storytelling help us build bridges?
We need to establish a connection. As humans, we have more in common than we have not in common. We are all parents, or Kansans, or plant pathologists … whatever it is that we have in common, that’s where you want to start the conversation. You are truly relating. The power of personal story is a great vehicle.
The story and the human elements actually trigger different parts of the brain that help you remember the information that’s following. It gets you to learn the science, which is our goal!
What is effective is structuring your story of science in a way that has a narrative arc — a beginning, middle, and end. The story has a conflict, or a decision that has to be made. If you look at anybody’s work and the process they’ve gone through to explain a scientific phenomenon, there is a story there. You can peel back the layers and find the story. We’re not trained to communicate that way! We don’t even use ‘I’ in our scientific writing. We need to say, ‘hey, this is me! I did the DNA extraction. This is what motivates me, and this is why I’m in science, and these are the problems I’m trying to solve, and these are the challenges I’ve experienced along the way.’
You will get a much more empathetic audience than if you passively disengage from this enterprise of doing science, and you’ll inspire others to do science. That’s especially important when we talk to young people.