Scientists fearing Trump ‘lobotomy’ clamor to speak out

By Debra Kahn | 01/27/2017 07:00 AM EST

Scientists across the country are increasingly interested in communicating directly with the public, media and elected officials in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration.

Scientists across the country are increasingly interested in communicating directly with the public, media and elected officials in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration.

Crackdowns on external communications at a number of federal agencies, including U.S. EPA and the Interior and Agriculture departments, have alarmed outside observers, who are in turn putting pressure on scientists to speak up.

"We’re all concerned we may be watching a federal lobotomy," California Energy Commission Chairman Bob Weisenmiller told several hundred scientists and policymakers gathered in Sacramento yesterday for the state’s Climate Change Symposium. "We need a multitude of Carl Sagans in the climate area. It’s not going to be sufficient to be publishing your papers in a great journal that’s written in a way most people are not going to understand."


Scientists are also increasingly recognizing that their findings are falling on deaf or hostile ears, and are taking steps to adapt their messages accordingly. Organizations that help scientists learn to communicate better are getting an influx of inquiries.

"I think we’re entering into an era where scientists are concerned it’s not enough to speak the truth about what’s happening, for example, with climate change or immunization or the natural world as a whole," said Laura Lindenfeld, director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. "I think people are drawn to us because we can help teach them different ways to convey that same information that is grounded in scientific truth."

About 250 academics are meeting this week in Portland, Ore., to hone their communication skills by talking to journalists, weaning themselves off PowerPoint and trying out improvisational theater.

"We were hoping we’d get about 150," said Science Talk NW conference co-chair Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist at Washington State University who studies hearing loss. "We never expected we would sell out a month before the conference and get emails from people begging to be let in."

The Alan Alda Center also has noticed an uptick in interest in its workshops. The nonprofit conducted 115 workshops and plenary sessions in 2015-16, up from 70 the previous year. It’s already scheduled 81 sessions for this academic year, which ends in July.

"Since the election, we’ve seen institutions consistently insist that what we offer is more important than ever," Lindenfeld said. "I think people are concerned about cuts to federal funding in particular."

"I definitely think it is on the increase," said Nancy Baron, science outreach director for Compass, a nonprofit that conducts communication workshops for scientists. "There’s a high motivation right now. Scientists want to make a difference, and they’re activated. Perhaps that’s one good thing that’s coming out of all this."

Being ‘indignant, offensive, rhetorical’

There are a growing number of organizations to help scientists communicate better. One of the main principles is tailoring one’s message to the audience.

The Alan Alda Center is known for its improv-based workshops, which are aimed at helping scientists relax enough to find an authentic mode of relating their message. The center also employs a two-minute "rant" where one participant unloads about a topic of his or her choice and the other tries to identify the deeper meaning.

"Communication isn’t just spewing data," Lindenfeld said. "Communication is finding that point where you get a sense of what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. Thinking about how what you have to say can land in a way that that person will hear it, and allowing that other person to share information with you that can land with you. It’s a two-way process."

On climate change in particular, scientists are appreciating the need for a more nuanced approach — and tempered expectations of what they can accomplish in a single act of communication.

"My approach used to be very indignant and almost offensive," said Sara ElShafie, a doctoral student in paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, who does communication trainings for graduate science students and is organizing a symposium on story and art in science communication for next year’s meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

"We’re burning a ton of fossil fuels; of course we’re causing climate change," she said. "But then in the last few months, largely from watching the election cycle and all the rhetoric around it, I started thinking about, does that kind of indignant, offensive, rhetorical attitude accomplish anything?"

Now ElShafie has adapted her climate message to get through to audiences who don’t necessarily even accept the theory of evolution. She tries to make the point that the global climate is "hotter than it’s been in recorded history, without arguing about how long that recorded history is. One battle at a time."

"You’re not blaming, you’re not making them defensive, you’re not saying anything that they could see as directly challenging their beliefs," she said. "You can’t approach it as, ‘I am the scientist with all the answers, let me tell you what I know.’ You have to approach it as a dialogue. It’s so important to make the other person feel that you respect them."

ElShafie also focuses on personal experience, asking the other person what they think of news reports on climate change or whether they’ve noticed changes in the climate over their own lifetime.

"Even if I don’t convince them of anything that day, if all I’ve accomplished is having a pleasant conversation with them where I’m listening to them and they’re listening to me, that’s still huge," she said. "They’re going to be a lot more likely to listen to the next scientist that they meet or they hear on the news."