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1 March 2011 Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter
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Some years ago, an earthquake hit the northern Front Range of Colorado. Although the event was not impressive by California standards, four-drawer filing cabinets had danced little jigs, and my undergraduate assistant was convinced that the unusual silence among our research birds in the hours before the quake was evidence of their prescience. He mentioned this to some friends, and soon I was talking to the local radio folks, explaining— careful scientist that I am—that there is no evidence confirming or denying the ability of bobwhite quail to foretell earthquakes. Within a day, the radio credited me with declaring that bobwhites could predict earthquakes. I wanted to hide; I prayed for sunspots to wreck the radio waves until the next news cycle; I vowed never to speak to a journalist again.

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Years later, I was sitting on a county advisory board. We dealt with some controversy, and afterward, a reporter asked to contact me the following day. I agreed, and as I traveled home, I formulated my sound bites, sorting out my message. When he didn't call, I called him. What had changed my attitude toward the popular press?

I had met Nancy Baron, and I had experienced the communication training she has designed for scientists— in my case, through the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program ( http://leopoldleadership.stanford.edu). I now have a clearer idea of how to get my message across to the public and I understand my mistakes when I make them.

Baron has taken her passion for communicating science one step further by writing Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter. I began reading her book with high expectations, knowing that if she had succeeded in distilling her ideas into print, then all scientists could learn to reach a wider audience—an audience that in many cases pays scientists' salaries and research expenses, but doesn't always understand (and may even distrust) what scientists do. I was not disappointed; Baron has more than met the challenge.

A superb communicator herself, Baron began her career as a national park biologist in Canada, started writing a newspaper column, and continued into journalism. She is a citizen of the media world as well as the scientific world, and she understands the complex wall of respect, bewilderment, and apprehension that can separate scientists and the media. More than that, she shares many scientists' passionate hope that their work can help show the way to a better future.

Baron makes no assumptions, but begins the book with an introductory section that includes a consideration of the costs and benefits of speaking out. How do scientists decide to speak out (or not)? She confronts some of the fears of scientists—the perceptions (and jealousy) of their peers, the worry that “advocacy” is somehow alien to science. Her thoughtful account of what it means to be a citizen scientist is worth the price of the book.

The second section (“A Clash of Cultures”) is an introduction to the worlds of journalism, the changing media, and policymaking. In these chapters, Baron focuses on “cultural comparisons” and misperceptions on both sides. For instance, as scientists, we are careful (i.e., slow), evidencebased, in-depth thinkers who pay attention to details and are comfortable with uncertainty. Journalists are deadline-driven information gatherers who seek conclusions, certainty, and a quick overview with an emotional hook. This itself is a recipe for miscommunication. (Recall the amazing bobwhite quail.) In further contrast, policymakers ask a different set of questions about a given issue—what is the nature of their responsibility for the issue at hand, what is its effect on their constituents, and what are the costs and benefits of action or inaction? Clearly, a scientist who understands all of these perspectives will gain insight into the nature of successful communication with journalists and policymakers.

Two of my favorite parts of this section are a lively discussion of the importance of telling an engaging story, and a wonderful box (3.1) that addresses how to acknowledge scientific uncertainty “without completely undermining your authority and expertise.” Baron also touches on the how and why of changing media (the blogosphere, social networks, and the like) but correctly notes that a comprehensive exploration would require a much longer book; this chapter will be useful to folks who are contemplating dipping a toe into this unsettled pool, but it can be skipped by the media savvy among us.

The heart of Escape from the Ivory Tower, in my opinion, is the third section: the “How-to Toolkit.” Four pages into the toolkit, readers are introduced to the message box—a nonlinear way to prepare material so that the central issue or message can be approached from almost any angle. Preparing a message box is difficult only because it forces us to dig down and identify the core ideas that surround and support our message—and to express them all in no more than four to five sentences. Baron and the journalists she interviews are unanimous in their view that when it comes to communicating science, more—especially in the form of complexity, jargon, detail, and piles of numbers—is emphatically not better. As with the entire book, this section is enriched with examples, interviews, case studies, succinct summaries, and fine cartoons. These means of illustrating a point are especially useful with the message box; the before and after demonstrations of cluttered and clear communication bring home Baron's instruction.

Baron then moves on to chapters devoted to interviews, contacts, promoting a paper, and political activity. Here we learn about “block and bridge,” that is, how to guide an interview toward the points we wish to make rather than the questions we do not wish to answer. We are warned that everything—yes, everything!—is on the record, and that journalists don't let us review their stories because their own professional tradition is rooted in independence and service to the public. Whether considering television, print, or radio, we repeatedly hear about the hazards of jargon and the magic of telling a story that comes alive with metaphors and personal touches. Scientists who spend time in the classroom will recognize many of the elements of good teaching in the ways we are encouraged to approach outreach.

What if media mavens and policymakers do not come calling? Where can you meet journalists? How do you pitch your story? What makes a successful op-ed piece? Baron has some answers. She shares her knowledge about how to get media traction for scientific discoveries and, for that matter, how to judge for yourself whether those discoveries are strong candidates for media attention. Baron drills down to the details: Are you ready with compelling photographs? Can you write a press release? She dissects and presents “Anatomy of an Outreach Effort” (box 12.3). Finally, she guides us through the foreign terrain surrounding political outreach. From dress codes to one-pagers, she covers the admittedly nerve-racking process of congressional testimony. (Scale it down, and you are ready for your county commissioners!)

Outreach is not cheap and is not without some surprises. In the final section, Baron devotes a chapter to dealing with backlash, be it from special interest groups, peers, or the media. In a summary chapter, she offers comments on what she sees as “Ten Steps to Success.” This chapter is perhaps most notable for its (and the book's) final sentence. Baron shares a question from the poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

To my knowledge, no other book attempts to assist scientists in doing the critical task of outreach to media, politicians, and the wider community. Because Baron understands scientists, journalists, and policymakers—and because she cares passionately about how science is translated into care for our planet—she can write an accessible book that nonetheless delivers the detail and hands-on instruction scientists need for success.

Escape from the Ivory Tower is well organized with short, to-the-point chapters that are punctuated by examples, interviews, and gentle humor. In the world of science we sometimes forget that a book can be an easy, pleasant read and still teach us quite a bit. Nancy Baron knows that, and she has delivered that book. The result is unlike anything you've read before—and it is something you need to begin reading now. This is not a book for your bookshelf. It is a book for your backpack, your briefcase, your graduate students, and the trunk of your car, in case you need a refresher on the message box or simple inspiration before a chat with a newsperson or a visit to your elected officials. This is a book to be read, enjoyed, and dogeared—assuming, of course, you want your science to matter.

Janice Moore "Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter," BioScience 61(3), 239-241, (1 March 2011). https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2011.61.3.10
Published: 1 March 2011
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