Science communications expert and advocate Nancy Baron knows of what she speaks.

A science writer, zoologist, and communications trainer for COMPASS and the Leopold Leadership Program, Baron has had years of first-hand training experience with the science community, helping them wend their way through the public communications morass increasingly recognized as a key to sound science generally.

Book Review

In her workmanlike 2010 Island Press book, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, Baron relates the insights she has shared with, and learned from, those scientists and other communicators through those first-hand sessions.

Don’t mistake “Escape” for one of those ivory-tower theoretical communications treatises. It isn’t, and you’d be disappointed. Or pleased, as the case might be. As she writes up front, “there are other valuable, often more scholarly books on the art of science communication. Most of them fly at higher altitudes, discussing theories of science communication, and surveying the overall lay of the land.”

That’s not this book, which she says “zooms to ground level” as a do-it-yourself resource for connecting scientists to journalists and policymakers in the interest of a better informed public. Her focus here is instead on “learning how to make your science matter, rather than getting buried in the dusty piles of scientific articles that collect in drifts on shelves and forgotten computer files.” Sound familiar?

Aimed primarily at scientists doing environmental work, Baron turns at one point to the late biologist Ramson “Ram” Myers of Dalhousie University who cautioned his fellow scientists along these lines:

Speaking out effectively means doing an incredible amount of work. By action, I don’t mean simply mouthing off, but a long, hard sustained effort. Don’t worry if people are mad at you, don’t rub it in that they are wrong, simply produce so much evidence that your naysayers will eventually say that they believed it all along.

More sound advice at another point, as Baron writes: “Movers and shakers will not be dazzled by your data, your methodology, or the power of your writing in peer-reviewed journals. Politicians and decisionmakers, for the most part, don’t read them. Journals are too complicated, too technical, and are not delivered to their doorsteps. These people need you to tell them what’s going on and to answer their questions.”

Scientists: If not You on Capitol Hill…then Who?

She provides some backbone-strengthening counseling in reminding scientists that “You have a built-in advantage: scientists have deep knowledge on their side that comes from intensive and focused research. You are not simply voicing an opinion. Your insights and information should be considered in shaping policy.” She finds in the media a “natural ally” of science communicators, “even though it may not seem that way.”

In one chart, Baron describes what she sees as fundamental differences between science and journalism:

Science Journalism
Slow and ongoing Deadline-driven
Evidence first Conclusions first
In-depth Quick overview
Uncertainty Certainty
Specifics Generalizations
Credentials Perspectives
Rational Emotional

In a “Why You?” section dealing with scientists’ communications with policymakers, Baron advises, “Consider that if you are not on Capitol Hill talking to Congress about your science, then it is (a) being talked about by somebody else, most likely someone who is not a scientist and has an agenda; or (b) not being talked about at all.”

Elsewhere, she cautions scientists that their preference for always discussing (among their science colleagues) the unknowns and uncertainties in their work can often backfire when a non-scientist walks away with the impression that the real experts don’t know very much about the subject after all. She advises that scientists ask themselves the “So what?” question … why are you telling me this? And she offers up a simple “message box” as a tool for organizing and delivering their thoughts and messages in the most digestible format.

At another point, Baron offers scientists some insights to help them “ace your interview” with reporters.

Baron’s 248-page paperback for most scientists will be an easy read, but it’s one they might well find themselves highlighting and dog-earing the page corners so they can revisit key sections. On its own it’s unlikely that this single work is the silver bullet that scientists and the public alike need to surmount the “public understanding of science” hurdles facing modern society. But it’s a practical, useful, and insightful contribution to that effort, and there’s bound to be a convenient place on your bookshelf for it.

Make sure it’s convenient, mind you … as you’ll likely go back to it over and over in your efforts to improve communications on climate science and other policy-relevant science subjects.

Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter,” Island Press, 2010, ISBN-13:978-1-59726-664-2. was selling it for $27.22 in early December.

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