How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Clarity, Engagement & Science

I was wrapping up a kickoff meeting with a scientist I’m coaching and asked him if there was anything he wanted to accomplish working together that we hadn’t already discussed.

“More of what we’ve been doing today,” he said. “Getting clarity on interesting entry points for my audiences. I can get lost in many different things. And really having clarity on the audience.”

Sounds simple. But it’s profoundly difficult for so many scientists and other researchers, whose stereotype (and often reality) is “to get lost in many different things” — or at least “in their own thing.”

Helping scientists and researchers get clarity on how a) what they know can match up with b) the questions and needs of the community they want to reach and then c) distilling those into entry points of messaging, narrative and content — that’s my career in a nutshell. It’s much more than “content strategy.” It marries expertise and empathy and then getting the experts out of their way enough so the content can provide service. The “story” in Science+Story isn’t just that of the scientist’s or researcher’s expertise — it’s the story of the community’s needs and problems and knowledge as well, and how the two stories can mesh.

So why do scientists and researchers have such trouble reaching clarity on audience and entry point? What stands in their way?

In part, I think it’s “science,” at least in the defensive way that we relentlessly foreground it as the thing we are talking with others about.

The data scientist Kareem Carr threaded a month ago about “at least four possible ways for a scientist to have a conversation on Twitter”:

  1. Talking to other scientists as a scientist (in which scientists are looking for the right answer together, adhering to science community standards);
  2. Talking to other scientists as a member of the public (e.g., about the impact of science on society or social issues in science);
  3. Talking to the public as a scientist (“communicating science to the public as a form of public service … I am claiming some authority as an expert but also feel a moral responsibility to be a good representative of science”);
  4. Talking to the public as a member of the public (“bringing together my experiences as a human being which include being a scientist … I’m not claiming special authority as a scientist and I don’t have any special responsibilities either”).

As Carr admits, the list might be incomplete. Straight away, I can think of one addition: the scientist or researcher talking with (not “to”) a community (specific, not “the public”) to generate knowledge for use and a path forward for that community.

In that role, you’re a scientist or researcher, but you’re also a citizen, standing in some relationship with that community. You might be talking about science or research some of the time, but your real work is to create something broader and deeper: a dialogue that can produce that path forward.

Science and research still aren’t terribly good at reaching past the science and research to get to that dialogue. Neither is science communications. to say the least. What’s in the way, I think, is that science is always the subject and the client of mainstream science communications — it is always concerned much more with the advancement of science, not the advancement of people.

Scientists and science communicators will probably find that statement strange — isn’t science always in the advancement of people?

Think about history when you make that assumption.

Even this 2020 paper on demanding inclusion, equity and intersectionality in science communication — all undeniable goods we must strive for — lists as its benefits for marginalized communities “improved science learning, an increased sense of science identity and science capital.”

But what are the benefits to the communities, exactly?

The scientists and researchers I work with are hungry to make a difference in the world — desperate, in many cases.

Making that difference doesn’t mean giving up your identity as a scientist or researcher. But it does mean understanding that what the world wants from scientists and researchers is not necessarily science or research — but frames, paradigms, better questions and solutions.

Entry points to knowledge for a better life.

That’s also your entry point. Not necessarily just science.