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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MM: How does “public leadership building” begin? What kinds of things will the fellows be doing, and how will PopTech be involved?
AZ: First of all, everyone is different. All of the fellows will receive some common baseline training. But the long-term goal is to give them each an individualized peer-level network, a mentor network, and opportunities to connect with the larger public, to begin exercising public leadership.

We’ve already started to give them skills training in things like, How do you give a really good talk? How do you communicate clearly? And how do you balance scientific accuracy and storytelling?

The second thing we have started, and will be continuing, is introducing them to a network of journalists in a variety of areas. PopTech is working with media outlets ranging from Scientific American, to NBC, to the Op-ed department of the New York Times. We are forging ties with people at National Public Radio as well as Seed. Through these partnerships, the fellows will develop an understanding how different media — across various platforms and with very different audiences — work.

Then, in addition to providing individualized training and a peer-level network we’re also working with them on what might be called your “personal brand.” So for instance, we introduce them to lecture agents, and book agents, and book editors.

MM: As you’ve begun the initial skills training, are there any particular communication glitches you’ve noticed?
AZ: As scientists, they’re trained to present through data, and they frequently end their talks by telling you all of the reasons why their data might be faulty. In other words, they do ‘error control’ in the middle of their scientific presentations. Well, to a non-specialist that is enormously confusing, especially if you are coming to the subject for the first time. So how do you do a scientifically credible, but narrative-based, story-based, presentation? Balancing the two is really a skill. So to help out, we’ve brought together some of the best presentation- and media trainers. They meet with the fellows in private workshops — where the fellows don’t have to worry about their professional reputations — to help them explain who they are, what they do, why other people should care.

MM: As I’m sure you are aware, there are a handful of other programs—the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships and the Aldo Leopold Fellows Program, for example—that also train scientists in public communication. What makes the PopTech program distinct?
AZ:  The AAAS program, as far as I know, is a one-year program. We’re a bit different in that we’re making a long-term commitment to our fellows.  We are going to work with them for several years. In fact, part of the goal here is to understand what it actually takes. I’m not sure that anybody knows how long it takes to create a science leader.

As for the Leopold Fellows Program at Stanford, it’s superb. However, it is only aimed at ecological and environmental scientists.  And so what do you do with the life scientist who is working on an issue — arguably of equal social significance — like tuberculosis or influenza? These are critical concerns, and we need to galvanize decisions about them. We won’t likely have a tuberculosis outbreak here in the US, but if we did, we would need scientists to say, “This is what the science says.”

MM: Maybe not TB, but we definitely do have public health scares. Salmonella, for instance.
AZ: That’s right. In fact, the recent Salmonella outbreak falls right in the research sweetspot of one of our fellows, Gidon Eshel. He’s an applied mathematician and geophysicist who has done a lot of modeling of the environmental impacts of agriculture and the human food system. It’s crucial that we begin thinking about systems as large as the agricultural system, the food system, the public health system.

At the same time, the PopTech fellows are tackling issues that aren’t framed as “problems,” per se, but are just as consequential. This is the century of neuroscience — we’re seeing connections between nanotech, biotech, info-tech, and cogno-tech that we’ve never seen before. We’re learning about the brain, social networks, and how behavioral contagions spread in a social network. These are not framed as “public health issues,” but are enormously important for the way we organize society.

MM: Given that there’s such a need for leaders with expertise in these fields, why do you think it is that we’ve instead developed a science leadership vacuum?
AZ: We’ve identified three nested problems. The first problem is a networking- and skills training gap. There is no point along the path of getting your PhD — in your early ascent as a working scientist — where anyone explains to you how the modern systems of communication work. No one explicitly tells you about the leadership challenges that will be placed upon you as your career unfolds. The second challenge, surrounding the first, is that there is a common anti-popularizer bias in many academic departments. There is a belief that if you are not at the bench doing science, you are not a “working scientist.” If you raise your head up, you might inflame departmental politics; it might cost you advancement in the field, and even your tenure. The third challenge is that even if you are to overcome the first two hurdles, there is no place where you can learn strategies of public leadership and public engagement. So, how do you deal with that? How do you deal with complex political issues in the public square?

MM: I agree with you on the point of an entrenched “anti-popularizer bias.” It’s as if there is this notion that you’ve got to earn your stripes first—you’ve got to spend 2 decades or more at the bench before you’ve earned the right to give an opinion on social issues or to influence policy. But do you think the younger generation of scientists is pushing back against this bias?
AZ: Most definitely. This is the one thing that’s really working for us. Younger scientists have come of age in the era of the Internet, in the era of open science, in the era of the blogosphere, so there has been a demographic and a psychographic shift. Communication is a much more natural part of their lived experience, as individuals not just as scientists.

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