Dwindling media coverage of science and technology also places more responsibility on you for reaching the public directly. Coverage of science and technology occupy only a few percent of overall news coverage, according to the "State of the News Media 2008" report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report found that newspapers and network TV news devote only two percent of their coverage to science and technology and about seven percent to health and medicine. These percentages are far lower than for government, foreign affairs, elections and politics, crime, and economics and business.
Newspapers and magazines have drastically downsized their science and technology writing staffs in recent years. And the number of newspapers is steadily shrinking as they go out of business. So, despite the critical societal importance of science and technology, their media coverage will remain marginalized. Fortunately, the new responsibilities for explaining research also mean new opportunities, notes NSF communications officer Leslie Fink:
"We still have responsibilities to the major national newspapers and the major news networks . . . but they're not the only players in disseminating information the way they used to be." Thus, she says, NSF has enhanced information on its Web site and launched its own news service, Science360, and other communications aimed at explaining research that it funds—just as have other funding agencies, universities, and federal laboratories.
Like these institutions, you should recognize that do-it-yourself communications can directly reach audiences that can profoundly affect your research and career success:
Prospective collaborators in related disciplines. An engineer who can contribute to a research project in biology, or vice versa, might well miss even the most prominent scientific paper in the other discipline. However, broader dissemination of those results increases the likelihood that work will be communicated across disciplines.
Foundations and funding agencies. Such agencies as the NSF and NIH use lay-level explanations of your research to educate legislators and the public to the importance of the work they support. They see such communications as an important part of their efforts to advocate for their budgets. And over the long term, your likelihood of getting a grant certainly increases if the agency's research budget is healthy. Visit the NSF and NIH Web sites to see their extensive lay-level coverage of research they fund. And read the special online section on working with public information officers (PIOs) to learn how to work with funding agency PIOs.
Private donors. Most private donors are not technically trained, so lay-level explanations of your work will help them understand the importance of their gifts.
Prospective students. At universities, effective lay-level communications can attract undergraduate and graduate students to your laboratory. What's more, they will see the fact that you devote time to communications as evidence that you run an open, accessible research program.
Your institution's leaders. Your department chair might understand what is going on in your lab, but your institution's trustees, president, vice presidents, and provost might not. They are often not scientifically trained. So, providing compelling, lay-level explanations of your research help them appreciate the importance of your work to the institution. This understanding can help at budget time. More than once I have heard from researchers that they like walking into budget meetings armed with news releases and other articles that explain their work. They like even better when administrators who hold the purse strings cite such material in budget discussions and reports to trustees and donors. Institutional leaders will also appreciate your communication efforts because they enhance the reputation of the institution as a whole. In fact, when those leaders must cope with adverse media stories on the mistakes and scandals that bedevil any institution, they will appreciate even more the good news that your research discoveries represent.
Corporate partners. While corporate researchers with whom you collaborate will understand the implications of your work, nontechnical executives may not. And they are the ones who ultimately approve and advocate for those collaborations.
Legislators. News releases and feature articles help your institution's government relations officers make the case with state and national legislators to support your institution and its work. At one time or another, you may find yourself visiting those legislators, or even testifying before a legislative committee. It helps greatly in those encounters if legislators and their staff can be prepped with clear, accessible explanations of your work.
Your own family and friends. So many times I have heard from researchers, commenting on news releases and features, that "at last my family and friends will understand what I do!" Such understanding might make it a little easier for spouses to understand a researcher's long hours in the lab, or may have helped researchers through a bit of awkwardness at family reunions by helping the family understand how cool the research is.
Explaining Research will teach you how to become an adept do-it-yourself research communicator.