Conference on "Effective Techniques for Communicating University Research"
Council for Advancement and Support of Education
April 16, 1997
I'm delighted to have this opportunity to join you today. As members of this group you are engaged in a profession that, during my time as NSF director, I have come to believe is critical to the future of science and technology and, in many ways, to higher education in our nation. Your task--indeed, our collective task--is to act as liaison to the public for your research institutions and the scientists and engineers in professional societies, and I've come to value that activity now, from the vantage point of Washington, as never before. Indeed, the word "epiphany" may not be too strong to characterize my realization about how crucial public outreach is for the future of NSF's mission and the universities we support. I see many halos out there! Coincidentally, I've entitled my talk Let's Blow Our Horns about the benefits of research--and perhaps we can use the celestial brass section we have here in residence to amplify this message.
Let's step back a moment to look at the challenge we face. I think we all agree that it is vital to make a convincing case to policy-makers about the importance of investing adequately in scientific research and education, even while balancing the Federal budget. I remain very concerned that the nation will not be doing enough to maintain and strengthen its position as a world leader in science, engineering, and technology over the next several years. Without the support and understanding of the taxpayers, we surely will not be able to meet that challenge.
The continuing discussion about the ethical implications of cloning, touched off by the first cloning of a mammal, is a case in point. Many of us have been touched by the irony of the photos of "Dolly" the sheep--so placidly innocent in appearance, so unaware, as far as we can tell, of the firestorm of controversy she has set off. We have watched the announcement raise fear in the public. Some concern is certainly justified, but it has also sparked deeper questions about where science and technology are taking us. These are fears that the typical scientist's reluctance to speak up does not help to assuage. As an aside, I am reminded of a recent letter to Ann Landers about the response of a middle-schooler on a science test: "Genetics explains why you should look like your father, and if you don't, why you should." I'm not sure what such an answer says about science literacy--but Dolly the sheep certainly does look like her mother, who is also her twin sister--so we can look forward to even more interesting answers on science tests in the future.
More seriously, the reaction to scientific achievements like the breakthrough in cloning illustrates the pitfalls of poor communication between scientists and the public. What a change from the climate that existed in this country in the past. I am not the only one to reminisce about the "golden age of science in America"--the period after World War II through the fifties and part of the sixties. It was a great run! Public funding for science was almost unquestioned and generous, while an agenda for science was rarely discussed. That was a unique period for America in geoeconomic terms. All science was good. More science was better. In the words of Vannevar Bush, science was "an endless frontier"--and support for exploring that frontier seemed almost endless as well. The implicit consensus was that our national security required it.
We know, in retrospect, that the American people also received enormous benefits, from better health to higher-paying jobs to store shelves crammed full of consumer goods of every size, shape, color and price imaginable. But we never really talked much about where it all came from. Leading economists now say that one-half of all the economic growth in the U.S. in the past 50 years can be traced to innovation through science and technology. We owe it to our neighbors to tell them about that.
It is hardly news that the earlier "golden era" is now behind us. We can no longer expect public support for science and engineering research in the form of a blank check and an undefined agenda. I have characterized the projected cuts for federal R&D over the coming years, no matter whose projections you use, as a "very risky national experiment." In today's climate of budget balancing and downsizing, any agency even holding its own is doing well. An agency that receives even a modest increase is viewed as having great success. I am pleased that in the President's budget proposal to Congress, NSF received a three percent increase. And R&D overall went up two percent.
At the same time, awareness of the need for researchers to engage in some kind of outreach is growing. A few weeks ago, we saw 23 scientific societies--including the major organizations representing many physical scientists, mathematicians, and electrical engineers--issue a joint statement at a press conference, asking the President and Congress for a significant budget increase in federal support for research. While budget specifics are not my arena here, I was struck by this demonstration of a remarkable unity across scientific disciplines, with people linking up and driving home the message of how investment in science and engineering are an investment in our nation's future.
Similarly, Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican, and Representative George Brown, a Democrat, have each offered proposals for greater federal funding of research and development. This makes a very positive statement about bipartisan support in Congress for science.
We have also been hearing strong messages from the President about the importance of education, science, technology, and the environment. I'm cautiously optimistic that all this will be favorably translated in the final budget that emerges from Congress some months down the road. But we cannot be complacent, because the final numbers will also reflect the commitment of the President and Congress to balance the budget by the year 2002, and there are many competing promises.
How well science and technology weather the budget wars is in large part up to our joint efforts--throughout the research community, the universities, and professional societies. Our task, to put it succinctly, is to articulate how scarce taxpayer dollars assigned for research in science, engineering, and technology predictably translate into future benefits for society as a whole.
This is a crucial period of transition for academic science and engineering. We need to redouble our efforts to send a clear signal about linking our work in research and education to the challenges and concerns that face our society.
I know that I am preaching to the converted here--I still see those halos and hear the trumpets--when I stress the significant role that science and engineering have played in building our great society and must play in shaping a bright future. But this vital contribution is not so easy to convey to an uninformed public. What scientists and engineers must do is convince those who support their work--the taxpayers, who are the ultimate stakeholders in this venture.
In our work to reach out to the public, we are fortunate to have a huge reservoir of public curiosity to tap that can help bridge this gap between scientists and the public. And, I think you know what it takes. In recent weeks, we've seen one of the brightest comets of our lifetimes, Comet Hale-Bopp, featured prominently in the press and on our television screens. The color picture of Hale-Bopp gracing the front page of this recent USA Today is one among many examples.
Some astronomers are ranking Hale-Bopp among the greatest comets ever, and its glowing beauty and spectacular tail have provided an after-dinner show on clear nights for all those in the Northern Hemisphere who have looked up at the night sky. While some, sadly enough, only saw the comet as a fulfillment of their own beliefs, astronomers around the world are finding the comet to be a motherlode of information--they have been discovering new molecules and rare isotopes daily in this huge and unusually bright comet. The comet is expelling water as well as methanol, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and many carbon-rich compounds. Ground-based observatories are gathering comet data that will give clues about the birth of the solar system. Some are finding support for the theory that comets may have "seeded" the components for life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.
The comet's appearance has presented us a priceless opportunity to tap into public excitement and connect it to the research taking place. In a small but significant way, when a researcher, perhaps one we support, appears on CNN and makes that link, we've taken another step forward. When the public sees comet images from the telescopes funded by NSF and your institutions, that helps too.
We certainly don't have to wait for the comet of the century to come along--there are many other examples. A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues at NSF, Bob Corell, got the chance to discuss in the media new evidence about dinosaur extinction. The discovery buttressed the theory that an asteroid impact in the Yucatan 65 million years ago drove the dinosaurs and many other life-forms to extinction. And last summer, the controversial finding of possible fossil life in a rock from Mars--a rock found on the windswept icecap of Antarctica by NSF's search for meteorites--electrified the public as well as scientists. The story continues--with more evidence offered on both sides of the argument, and studies expanding to different meteorites. Much of what is done with NSF support can be made compelling and interesting to the public. The researchers must enlist themselves in this task, but they will need your help.
At NSF, our surveys continue to show that more than two-thirds of the public believes that science is a net good. And over 40% say they're strongly interested in science and technology. When we reach out with additional examples to convey the excitement and importance of research, we can be reassured by this reservoir of public good will. Nonetheless, only one in ten surveyed believes that he or she is well informed about science and technology, and only one in four has some knowledge of science. And the vast majority of people have no understanding of the scientific process--98% of them don't know what research means. To me this gap is very troubling: two-thirds laud the value of science, but very few understand the enterprise.
I have said many times that these survey results may suggest more about the research community than they do about the public. Traditional scientific training does not prepare its graduates very well to assume a role as an activist in society, to spread the word about science. I know from my own experience that here is where you as public relations professionals can make--indeed are already making--a critical difference to help researchers convey their message.
I think back again to Vannevar Bush's report, to his insight that "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of the team." Today scientists and engineers need to embrace your profession as an integral part of that team.
Some might envision your role as that of interpreters--an often unsung yet truly essential service. As Derek de Solla Price observed in his book Science Since Babylon, "...the biggest manpower shortage is not at the research front but in the region between there and the front office."
Over my last couple of years at NSF, I've come to believe that it's time for the science and technology enterprise to embrace reaching out to the public. In more personal terms, researchers need to engage in genuine public dialogues with their local communities, in the mold of what I have come to call the "civic scientist". My own experience over many years as an academic physicist and a university administrator demonstrates the isolation that many scientists experience. Before I became NSF director, I was accustomed to speaking to scientists around the world, and to students, but otherwise only rarely to groups outside the research community. Now I've come to see how vital it is to reach beyond the converted--even to the local Rotary club, the local radio talk show, community forums of various kinds.
I can well understand how such outreach can seem rather daunting for a scientist, but my own experience attests to the fact that it does become easier with practice. My efforts continue; as I travel to universities across the country, I try to leave some time to speak to local groups and to meet with local reporters.
I might even venture to say that it is time that such outreach be numbered among the professional responsibilities of scientists, and that training for it become an integral part of a scientific education. I would call upon scientists and engineers at your institutions to give some thought to how they could inform their community about what they do, and--more broadly--how to convey the complex link between science and technology and social progress. I would certainly welcome your suggestions.
Preparation for research careers has not included this dimension, and most of us could use some help. I have been urging researchers to seek out and take advantage of the public affairs resources available at their institutions--your offices and your expertise--in making a compelling case to the public. Meredith Small, an anthropologist and writer based at Cornell University, has described her experience as an academic writing for a popular audience. As she notes [in A Field Guide for Science Writers], "Academics have an ambivalent relationship with the press. On the one hand--faculty are encouraged to cooperate with the public affairs office--yet scientists have been trained to set themselves part from the public, and many assume their work is beyond the understanding of mere mortals. I have found there are two camps among academics--those who enjoy and support science journalism, and those who are suspicious of the press and offended that they might be expected to go public. The later group also often believes that if their work can be explained by a journalist, it must not be sophisticated or important. More disturbingly, they dismiss colleagues who are friendly with the press and enjoy the publicity.
"The press also has an attitude," continues Meredith Small. "They often see scientists as secretive--yet they usually admire their experiments and love science; as a non-scientist, you have to be pretty bright to understand and then clearly explain both black holes and sexual selection theory in the same week." I'll extend that last observation about science reporters to those who must explain the results of university research to the public. And then there is the additional challenge of working with researchers to overcome the hesitancy so many feel about speaking to the media.
One of my favorite science communicators, whose passing we continue to mourn, is Carl Sagan, an astronomer renowned not just for ground-breaking work in planetary science, but for his one-man campaign to increase the public understanding of science. Sagan understood the need to bring science into American living rooms, to link it to everyday life, to share the excitement of discovery. Scientists may have failed to credit him and others properly for breaking the mold of the traditional researcher and trying something new. On May 7 [see press release], we will honor Sagan with the NSF Distinguished Public Service Award, the first one we've given in three years, because of his contributions to both research and public education.
Very few researchers could or would aspire to such "superstardom" in public outreach. But that is not necessary if several researchers in each of your institutions would step up their efforts, simply at the level of "stardom!" Together, maybe we can prod them a bit, in the words of one public affairs professional, urge them "to speak up, speak out, and speak English."
Even NSF is changing, realizing a new responsibility as an advocate for the cause of science and engineering to the public. NSF has certainly been a longtime, quiet catalyst for scientific and technical literacy, but we have traditionally kept a low public profile as an institution, perhaps believing that trumpeting our successes was somehow unseemly. I might suggest that this attitude may inadvertently have carried just a whiff of elitism--well, maybe more than a whiff. We are not doing a service to the research community or the public if we do not help make the case about why science and technology matter in people's lives. Given today's budgetary climate, neither the Federal R&D agencies nor the research community can afford to appear isolated from the taxpayer who pays the bills.
Let me just say a particular word about how important it is to encourage the researchers at your institutions and societies to speak to the media. This is an activity that--perhaps more than other types of public outreach--fills many scientists with trepidation. Again, practice and training are absolutely essential to getting the message heard. Researchers simply must learn to speak in terms that their non-scientist friends and neighbors can understand. As Allan Bromley, president of the American Institute of Physics, said on National Public Radio recently, "--if you can't explain what you're doing and why you're doing it to any intelligent layman, that really means you don't understand it yourself." And scientists need to be reminded that the payoff is worth the effort, because working with the media amplifies our words. With only one interview, we can reach people across the state or the nation.
About a month ago, National Public Radio's program "Science Friday" tackled the issue of how to improve media coverage of science. It was a wide-ranging discussion of how media treatment of science affects the public, the scientific community, and decisions to fund research.
The show's host, Ira Flatow, posed this question: "Could it be that the amount of air time or newspaper space set aside for science issues has a direct effect on funding for science, that in order for the public to make decisions on where their tax money should go, they have to understand the issues?"
One of the questions asked during the show was why the media do not devote more attention to science and technology. The private sector and the federal government spend some $180 billion on research and development, but the media do not give this sizeable industry the coverage it warrants.
I would take this one step further. Perhaps producers and editors would feature more science news--which surveys show the public wants--if scientists would make their case, talk about their research, in more compelling terms. As one of the radio show guests said, "Somewhere between high school and a PhD, many scientists forget how to speak English."
According to a survey discussed on the NPR show, a quarter of U.S. scientists said they had never spoken to a reporter. Most of the rest said they talked to the media once every year or two. Only four percent talk to a reporter once a month. We cannot be complacent about these statistics.
Let me also take this opportunity to make a plea that we redouble our efforts to work together. When a researcher at your institution comes up with compelling results that the public should know about, when a newsworthy discovery is made or about to be published, NSF would like to join with you to get the message out. Frankly, for a variety of reasons, we may find out about such successes from the newspaper or television, too late to raise our voices together. We need to jointly publicize these successes.
Our public affairs staff at NSF and those at the institutions we support have already begun to plow some of this ground together. When NSF realized that we had supported five 1996 Nobel Prize winners, we worked with public information officers at Cornell, Stanford, and Rice to enlist their Nobelists in spreading the word about the value of fundamental research. Both NSF and the laureates' institutions gained from that collaboration.
When a New York Times reporter wrote about NSF's high-performance computer network, we could talk about policy and potential, but university contacts provided the examples that gave life to the story.
When we've taken public affairs officers to Antarctica to help spread the word about research there--and brought them back again, of course--both NSF and the universities profited from the collaboration. The upshot is that both NSF and your institutions emerge as winners.
I've noted that the conference agenda for tomorrow includes a session on "how government agencies can make your life easier" (perhaps you wouldn't mind if I returned here tomorrow to pick up some pointers on that!). In any case, I'm very encouraged to see that you'll have a chance to brainstorm tomorrow, and again at a breakfast session on Friday, about how our institutions can collaborate on publicity for newsworthy research.
In closing, I would like to return once more to Carl Sagan, because in his recent bestseller The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he brilliantly exposed the danger underlying our current dichotomy. "We've arranged a global civilization," he wrote, "in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
Probably the most important message I've tried to convey today is that the climate for science has changed forever. While it is necessary to increase public understanding of science and technology, it is equally important for scientists to deepen their understanding of the public. This two-way communication has the promise to benefit us all. Together, we can make it happen.
Thank you. I would be happy to take your questions.