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Explaining Research also aims to foster a cultural change in science, engineering, and medicine—remedying their lack of an innate culture of explanation, compared to politics, sports, entertainment, and business. Certainly, you spend considerable time communicating to your peers—publishing scientific papers, delivering seminars, and talking shop over lunch. However, politicians, athletes, and entertainers, constantly in the public eye, are far more adept than researchers at explaining themselves and their work beyond their immediate colleagues. Admittedly, their fields may need less effort to explain. It is easier to talk to the public about a curve ball or a new movie than neutron stars or mitochondria. And the World Series or a movie blockbuster might at first blush appear more interesting to the public. However, I contend that science and engineering can be made just as compelling as baseball or moviemaking, and Explaining Research aims to show how.
Engineering in particular, suffers from a debilitating lack of an explanatory culture. For example, when science communication educator Deborah Illman advertised a course in science and engineering writing at the University of Washington, she found that thirty times the number of science students registered than did engineering students—even though the course was in the engineering school.
And when she asked engineering faculty to incorporate lay-level writing into engineering coursework, they declined, saying "Our students are writing averse," Illman told a symposium on communicating engineering at the 2008 AAAS meeting. "And the second objection I hear is that there is no room in the curriculum."
The devaluing of explanation is a vicious circle in engineering. It begins with the relative lack of skill by engineering students in explaining to general audiences, which means they will not value such explanation when they become leaders.
For example, a study by University of Florida education researcher Guili Zhang and colleagues showed that the odds of graduating in engineering, although correlated positively with high school GPA and math SAT scores, correlated negatively with verbal SAT scores.
Engineers' aversion to explanation has caused engineering to be poorly covered in the media and poorly understood by the public, found a 2006 study published in IEEE Technology and Society by Illman and colleague Fiona Clark. When they analyzed 20 years of research coverage by The New York Times, they found that mentions of science and scientists consistently outnumbered by two to one mentions of engineers and engineering. They concluded in the study that
...a large proportion of the U.S. public undervalues the role played by engineers in a wide variety of technologically-based activities, holds engineering as a less prestigious occupation than science, and regards engineers as less socially responsible than scientists.
Corporations certainly have a culture of explanation. They view communications as critical to their success, as evidenced by the vast sums they spend on advertising. Certainly, far more people can recite the latest soft drink jingle than can name even a few famous scientists, engineers, or physicians.
The miserably inaccessible form of technical papers represents another example of science and engineering's lack of a culture of explanation. Technical papers are a "communications quicksand," even though they are critical to the scientific enterprise. They often smother readers in densely packed texts of rambling, convoluted sentences.
What's more, publishers of technical journals almost willfully ignore the tenets of good design—which hold that white space, color design elements, subheads, and clear writing can aid communication. And incredibly, even online journals—where good design does not cost money in terms of paper or printing—still exhibit lousy design.
The lack of a culture of explanation shows most dramatically in how trivially scientists view lay-level communication. Witness its offhanded treatment in the 2006 book Survival Skills for Scientists, by Federico Rosei and Tudor Johnston. In the entire book, they devote only a single parenthetical paragraph to the topic:
(If you are sufficiently successful in science you may be called upon to produce a popularization for the general public. At this point the only respect to be paid to the expert is to avoid saying anything actually technically incorrect, to which one can point and say, "That is clearly wrong." What you strive for in a popular presentation is (as always) clarity. Describe exactly what and how much to say. Better less and clear than more and overdense. If a technical word must be used, define it. This is all that we will say on popularization.)
I hope Explaining Research will help change this dismissive attitude—convincing you that Web sites, news releases, videos, and other communications are just as critical to your work's success as your laboratory instruments. While your instruments enable you to gather data to make discoveries, communication tools enable you to disseminate those discoveries to audiences that benefit from them and that decide about supporting your work.
(See also Please Explain: Training Scientists to Be Better Communicators, Chronicle of Higher Education (Registration required), Article also posted on Research Explainer blog