Ten Communication Tips for Translational Scientists

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Jul 19, 2016
Sunshine Menezes

Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights.


As someone who works with scientists, journalists, advocates, regulators, and other types of communication practitioners, I see the need for translational scientists who can navigate productive, start-to-finish collaborations between such groups on a daily basis.

This translation involves the use of new, more integrated approaches toward scientific work to confront wicked environmental problems society faces.

In spite of this need, cross-boundary communication poses a major stumbling block for many researchers. Science communication requires engagement with potential beneficiaries, not just a one-way transfer of information.

Effective communication is a key component of translational science, requiring both theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

To that end, I offer ten tips for translational scientists seeking more effective communication:

  1. Stop referring to the “general public”. There is no such thing. Each of us brings a different suite of experiences, biases, and values to how we view the world. A translational scientist must recognize this, and respect that these diverse perspectives occur among the beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other scientists with whom she collaborates.
  2. Start a conversation. Academics are very good at talking to one another, but listening is a critical aspect of integrative, cross-boundary thinking. Good listeners can help others open up, providing new information for the discussion and building trust along the way.
  3. Accept that trust only goes so far. In spite of the previous point, it is possible that you might not be the optimal translator for a given interaction. Depending on a person’s background and values, he or she is likely to trust some people more than others. While your Ph.D. might open doors to a new academic collaborator, it could close the door to a person who entered the workforce after graduating high school. Or not. It is important to consider these biases and include team members who can build a rapport with all the necessary stakeholders.
  4. Remember your – or your friend’s – love for Lego. I was forever changed by my interaction with a sculptor who said she learned how to understand the world by playing with Lego. She meant that some of us learn by reading, some by looking at two-dimensional images, and others by experiencing three-dimensional representations. These different learning styles cannot be undervalued when attempting to collaborate across disciplines and boundaries.
  5. Feel all the feelings. Scientists are trained to view their work objectively, and to present themselves as impartial observers. But remember that your humanity, your expression of emotion, can sometimes strengthen collaborations, especially with stakeholders who exist outside of the ivory tower.
  6. Embrace change. Let’s face it: wicked problems are constantly evolving. A translational scientist must adapt and be willing to move past approaches that no longer suit the problem.
  7. Recognize differential power dynamics. Many levels of power dynamics are at play when investigating/resolving complex environmental challenges. Identify these dynamics and address them in your interactions.
  8. Explain uncertainties. Researchers accept scientific uncertainty and work within its constraints, but those outside of the scientific community view uncertainty as a weakness, at best, or ineptitude, at worst. You can bridge this gap by noting consensus where it exists, describing the uncertainties associated with your research, and explaining how scientific uncertainty does not necessarily preclude policy action.
  9. Practice your writing skills. Academics tend to undervalue brevity. Be an example to your colleagues and collaborators by practicing this skill. Make time for regular writing and seek feedback.
  10. Become a negotiator. In the political sphere, compromise is often viewed negatively. But when it comes to solving complex environmental problems, compromise is unavoidable. By honing negotiation skills, you can foster discussions, and possibly solutions, that might otherwise be out of reach.

What would you add to the list? Are you teaching these skills in your graduate courses? I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how to better incorporate these skills and related knowledge in graduate education.

Biography: Sunshine Menezes is executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (URI GSO) and associate director for communication in the URI GSO Office of Marine Programs. She also co-leads the Engagement Team for the Deep Carbon Observatory, a global community of multi-disciplinary scientists unlocking the inner secrets of Earth through investigations into life, energy, and the fundamentally unique chemistry of carbon. Prior to focusing her communication efforts on improving news coverage of the environment, she developed national and state-level environmental policy, first as a Dean John Knauss National Sea Grant Marine Policy Fellow with Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. and later as part of a multidisciplinary team at the URI Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant. She is a member of the Translational Ecology pursuit, funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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