How researchers get heard

My Conversation with Daniel Swain

It’s the latest episode of Science+Story: The Podcast and possibly the best so far if you’re a scientist interested in how to manufacture space and time and funding for public engagement.

Daniel is a climate scientist at UCLA and one of the few scientists in academia with science communications built into his job description, so we had to talk first about how he made that happen, what the requirements are and how other researchers might create similar positions. (Co-funding, in a word.) Among other things, we also talked about:

  • The two kinds of hate mail Daniel gets as a climate scientist;
  • The differences between what he puts on Twitter vs. his long-running (and very popular) California weather blog, Weather West;
  • Whether scientists are the best advocates for “listening to the science” (vs. laypeople);
  • The best ways for scientists to improve as communicators; and
  • Why he thinks getting over your reluctance to communicate about topics you haven’t done primary research on is the key to communicating science well.

Some money quotes:

Why he answers questions about climate science topics he hasn’t written about:

“The litmus test I use for myself increasingly is essentially this: If I’m not willing to engage on this particular topic, or if I don’t opine when asked to talk about something, is the next person this journalist or this member of Congress turns to to get an answer to the question they’re asking more or less likely to give correct information than I am? And in a lot of cases the next person that’s on the list might not be a scientist at all, or is a scientist in a completely different field.”

On the additional obstacles women and people of color face doing science communications:

“One of the challenges as science communications slowly emerges as something that’s being recognized as more important in academia and the science community in general is that there are already so many pre-existing barriers if you’re not a white guy like myself that the additional pressure of doing something that’s seen as extraneous or weird still in certain circles amplifies those pre-existing burdens. And so it makes for an even higher barrier of entry for women and people of color to the science communication realm, especially because they’re already working harder to prove themselves right off the bat. And this is just another way in which you have to convince your supervisors or your peers that this is something worthy of doing and that you’re worthy of doing it.”

On who will have to be the agents of change for creating more positions like his:

“I think the agents of change will have to be those young and early-career scientists who are interested in actually engaging in this way. They’re going to have to be strong self-advocates and they’re going to have to be willing to take some risks and try to carve this out from existing institutional structures and existing funding bodies.”