Building Science Leaders

Ideas / by Maywa Montenegro /

Pop!Tech launches an initiative to cultivate a new class of science leaders—young researchers with the skills and drive to reach out, communicate their science, and lead society towards evidence-based solutions.

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Meet the 2010 Class of PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows. Photo Courtesy of PopTech.

Several years ago, Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford University, saw that young scientists at his school were having a hard time distilling their work into a succinct, inviting narrative. So he customized the “elevator pitch”: You and a friend—who is intelligent and curious, but not a scientist—are in an elevator together. You have the duration of a nonstop ride to the 15th floor to explain what research you do, what it means, and why it’s important.

Few researchers, unfortunately, are lucky enough to cross paths with mentors the likes of Kennedy, or to be naturally gifted public speakers. But while training in communication and leadership are considered essential in business, politics, and the non-profit sector, in the sciences they’ve long been ignored, even shunned.

Now, as complex challenges—from oil spills, to obesity, to climate change—reveal themselves to be only solvable through the lens of science, the public is increasingly calling for science experts to inform economic and public policy, to educate the broader public, and to inform the civic discourse. Anti-vaxxers and creationists aside, society has become more savvy to special interests that create the appearance of facts where there are none and that stoke controversy where it ought not exist. And scientists, too, are increasingly eager to bring their scholarship towards finding practical solutions. Yet how to better link scientists to society, and ivory tower to Average Joe, remains largely uncharted territory. Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech, believes it will begin with scientists themselves—by giving them the skills and tools to become more effective communicators and public leaders. To those ends, PopTech this month launched a new Science and Public Leadership Fellows program. Seed recently caught up with Zolli to learn more.

Maywa Montenegro (MM): Give me your elevator pitch. What is the Poptech Science and Public Leadership Fellows program, and why should I care?

Andrew Zolli (AZ): The most pressing issues of our day need to be informed by scientific insights and by scientific leaders. But in many of the necessary areas, there are no visible scientific leaders. There are scientists who are doing important work, but their work doesn’t always inform the public discourse. There are good programs to help scientists interface with policy makers, but not with the public in general. So at PopTech, we’ve undertaken a very distinctive, very different, kind of program to help scientists engage in public communication and leadership.

MM: That’s pretty good! Okay, so now we’re off the elevator. Can you tell me in a bit more detail what spurred the program’s genesis, and where are you right now, in terms of starting it up?
AZ: In our work at PopTech, as you can imagine, we routinely see scientists who speak their language — whether they speak English or Chinese — as a second or a third language after the scientific language of their field. They speak statistics, then they speak English. Our observation is that, while it’s wonderful for Obama to say he wants to restore science to its “rightful place” in society, he can really only guide the policy establishment. He can’t help the scientists themselves learn how to be better leaders and communicators. This program is designed to fill this gap.

So far, we’ve selected the first class of fellows and started the baseline training. Next month at the annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, they will all be giving short presentations to introduce themselves and their work. Then we’re going to start working with them on an individual basis.

MM: What were the selection criteria for the incoming PopTech fellows?
AZ: We identified 17 world-class scientists who are in the top 5 percent of their fields, adjusted for the stage of their career. We’ve decided to focus on scientists who are plus or minus three years of tenure, and who have been recognized as being at the top of their fields. They are all doing extraordinary science—these are MacArthur award winners, Howard Hughes Medical Institute primary investigators, NSF Career and PECASE Winners. And we picked them in fields and disciplines that are going to have a significant impact on the nation and the planet, where their work is relevant to critical challenges we face.

MM: So if an octogenarian Nobelist came to you and said, “ I really, really want to become a public leader,” you would say “Sorry, grandpa”?
AZ: [laughs] Well, no we wouldn’t say that. But the reason we pick the fellows at this stage is that they are far enough along to be credible but young enough to be influence-able over the balance of their careers.

This is a sort of “Goldilocks effort”: Graduate students are full of enthusiasm for this type of program, but most of them have not done the science that will define their careers. We also don’t want them too late…We’re aiming to reach them at just the right point, where they have done work and have received scientific recognition, yet have enough runway in front of them to build reputations as credible public leaders.


The 2010 Fellows first met in August at the Banbury Center of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. That kickoff event began a longer term process of providing training, mentorship and access to a powerful social network – comprised of scientific media, corporate and academic leaders – and opportunities for public leadership and engagement. See snapshots from their first gathering.


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