News & Media

Universities Need Science Communication Training Programs

By: Colleen Kerr, Vice President for External Affairs and Government Relations & Chief Legislative Officer at Washington State University and Allison Coffin, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver and Executive Director of Science Talk

WSU blog post graphic
This article is included as part of APLU’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU’s IEP designees at www.APLU.org/IEPBlog. Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at www.APLU.org/SeekIEP.

Each day, students at America’s Public and Land Grant universities conduct cutting-edge scientific research, making key discoveries in areas from astrophysics to vaccine development. As part of their education, they receive training in experimental design, data interpretation, and research ethics. Nonetheless, our programs often lack an element critical in bringing science to bear on our daily lives – communication training.

Many universities now offer professional development programs such as writing, mathematics, and career services centers. All of these services are valuable, but for students in STEM fields (and we argue, any field), communication skills are the missing piece. Many universities are beginning to fill this gap. Students want more.

Public universities need science communication
As publicly supported institutions, APLU institutions have a duty to both educate students and conduct research that provides public impact. Without communication to and engagement with the public, this research is largely invisible. By training STEM students in communication techniques appropriate for diverse audiences, and helping students apply these skills in community-facing situations, we showcase the public-community partnerships that define APLU institutions. American universities were established as part of a social contract between universities and the surrounding societies and are an intrinsic part of the story of America. Both university and government leaders argue that the old contract has failed. We need a new contract. One dependent on rebuilding understanding of the societal benefits of university research through broadly accessible, intentional public engagement efforts.

In 2019 the APLU published a report on Public Impact Research, defining public impact research as “a broad label to describe how university research improves lives and serves society.” One of the core tenants of this report is better communication to all stakeholders, including investing in institutional communication training. We wholeheartedly support that recommendation.

Beyond showcasing the societal benefit of university research, increased public engagement by students, faculty, and staff provides myriad other benefits. Public engagement can help institutions showcase their economic and community development impact. The APLU initiative around economic development and community engagement offers an IEP designation for universities that demonstrate their Innovation and Economic Prosperity. One of the core tenants of this program is “tell” – communicating the impact of university-led regional economic engagement and opportunity. Communication training can help IEP institutions fulfill this commitment.

Ultimately, public engagement can improve university standing and regard by the community, facilitate donor relations, encourage informed decision-making to drive policy change, enhance trust in science, and ultimately change the world.

Early in 2020, Dr. Kathleen Jamieson provided excellent commentary on the need for public engagement by land-grant universities. Here, we focus on the student experience.

Science communication enhances traditional graduate training
Science communication training helps students improve their writing on manuscripts and fellowship applications. Students also improve their speaking, leading to compelling conference posters and talks and conference presentation awards. As such, these students become ambassadors for our graduate programs, providing an indirect benefit of increased program visibility and bottom-up recruiting.

Importantly, training enhances job prospects for our graduates. Employers often cite communication competence as a key skill lacking in their new hires. Also, not all of our graduate students will secure one of the dwindling number of faculty positions, nor are they all interested in doing so. Better communication skills make them highly competitive for jobs in private industry, business, science policy, and science communication – itself a growing field.

Graduate research is often a lonely endeavor. Students go deep in a subject, but this depth can come at a cost – loss of the bigger picture. Educating students on public communications and engagement strategies helps students see the value in their research by contextualizing it in the space of public impact and can enhance student self-confidence, satisfaction, and retention.

Many younger scientists want their work to make a difference. By not including science communication training and engagement opportunities for our students we risk losing our best and brightest future scientists. This loss is particularly devastating as we work to make meaningful progress towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. More than 50% of STEM students of color report wanting their work to impact social change. We must encourage these efforts and provide resources for our students to effectively communicate their passion.

In-house science communication training
The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University has gained prominence and helped to elevate the importance of science communications. Many APLU institutions offer their own science communication programs. For example, the University of Michigan conducts a Science Communication Fellows program for students, faculty, and staff, and the University of Minnesota hosts an annual Speaking Science training event. Both the University of Michigan and University of Minnesota are IEP institutions and these programs demonstrate their commitment to public engagement.

At the authors’ home institution, Washington State University (also an IEP designee), we have a new Graduate Certificate in Research Communications, available for any research-oriented graduate student at any campus across our system. This nine-credit certificate combines training in both theoretical and practical aspects of communication and culminates in a student-directed communications project meant for public display, such as a blog post, YouTube video, art installation, serving as a complement to the traditional graduate thesis.

The challenge with these university-led programs is that they are often driven by one or a few faculty members passionate about science communication, rather than by a formal administrative structure. These grassroots efforts are often overload teaching or service for the faculty involved and require the support of an administrative champion for funding or personnel support. Universities should do more to normalize and fund these programs.

External training opportunities
Many scientific societies hold science communication workshops as part of their annual conferences or offer online classes throughout the year. Universities can hire professionals from organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science or COMPASS to lead training events for their students (and faculty!). The new Scicomm Trainers Network also offers a dispersed group of experienced science communicators for virtual or on-campus training.

Creative universities can also tap local communication resources. For example, one of us (A. Coffin) got her start as a communicator by joining a Toastmasters club. Local theater groups offer opportunities to practice communication skills. Taking an improvisational theater class is a great community-building activity for students searching for connection – and a break from the lab!

Students can join communities such as ComSciCon or the NPR SciCommers to connect with other early-career scientists with an interest in science communication. Another resource is Science Talk, the professional society for science communicators, which hosts an annual conference and year-round community activities. Many regions also offer local science communication groups, such as the Science Communicators of North Carolina. These outside resources complement institutional programs to create a holistic environment.

Closing remarks
APLU institutions lead the scientific charge to address many of our society’s most pressing problems, indeed to change the world. Our students need – and demand – increased science communication training and engagement opportunities to connect their work to the publics we serve. To quote science communication trainer Nancy Baron, “Being a good communicator is not a trade-off. It makes you a better scientist.” It is our obligation to help our students be better scientists so their science – our science – can positively impact the world.

This article is included as part of APLU’s Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Designation and Awards Perspectives Blog. Read other articles around strategies, programs, and impact of APLU’s IEP designees at www.APLU.org/IEPBlog. Earn APLU’s IEP designation. Learn more at www.APLU.org/SeekIEP.

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