Talking Science – an interview with Allison Coffin

Creating public dialogue about science isn’t easy – I wrote about a significant missed opportunity recently.

And yet, if we could bring science closer to the public, we would be able to address some of the biggest issues facing our planet.  Behaviours could be changed not through the facts and figures necessary for peer-reviewed publication, but through factual stories which pack an emotional punch.

So you can imagine my joy when I was introduced to Allison Coffin, the co-founder and President of Science Talk, a national science communication organization.  With their March 2018 conference fast  approaching, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Allison to find out more about what Science Talk are up to – and why it matters so much.

Neil (NH): Science Talk launched as Science Talk North West in 2016 before expanding to national coverage last year. What was the spark which inspired you to launch it?

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Allison Coffin

Allison (AC): Science Talk started as an informal conversation between myself and Janine Castro, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We connected several years back (we still don’t remember how!) because of our mutual interest in science communication, and one day over coffee we lamented that these connections always happened by chance. We knew there were other people in the Pacific NW region of the U.S. who were similarly passionate about science communication, and we thought that starting a local conference was the best way for everyone to meet.

Our 2017 conference was a hit – we sold out a month early, with over 250 attendees. That led us to really launch Science Talk as a nonprofit organization, rather than an informal group.

NH: As I wrote recently, scientists don’t always connect well with the media (or the public). What would you say are the biggest hurdles that need to be overcome to start a dialogue?

AC: I agree – we definitely struggle connecting! I think the key word there is “connection.” Science training focuses on logic and reasoning, not the human connection, but communicating with non-scientists requires a connection. Several studies show that scientists are more likely to be believed if we come across as trustworthy and likeable. This means getting out of the lab, and really talking with people…and listening. Listening to their concerns, and meeting them where they are.

NH: What would it look like for you if that dialogue happened?

AC: It would look amazing! To me, a successful dialogue means that both parties feel heard, and appreciate the other’s perspective. Science provides information that can address complicated world problems, but decisions usually come down to more than just science – we need to consider personal choice, economics, feasibility to implement what science is telling us – there are a lot of factors involved in making complex decisions. Successful dialogue means that the scientific perspective is heard and appropriately considered in policy and other civic decisions.

On a more personal level, a successful dialogue is when someone walks away from a conversation with a scientist and thinks, “That was cool! I learned something new.”

I had a great conversation with my father a few months ago – he’s a big supporter of science (and me!), and he said that he thought that public investment in science (through government funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.) should support research that will have a benefit for humanity. I then talked about the discovery of green fluorescent protein, which comes from a jellyfish, and how this discovery has revolutionized biomedical research. He came to appreciate how serendipitous discovery, often because a scientist could pursue his/her curiosity, can lead to great human benefit in the future, and how we can’t often predict this benefit when we do the science.

NH: Science seems to be having a difficult time under the current US administration, at least from an international perspective. What challenges do you see on the horizon in the next couple of years, and what opportunities? 

AC: I agree – science is having a difficult time, and I think that’s because in general the public doesn’t care much about science, which means that politicians can ignore scientific facts without facing much public pressure. Most major media outlets have reduced or outright cut their science reporting, often in response to market pressures. This opens the door for politicians to spin science (or ignore it) without much backlash, because the media and the majority of the public don’t generally respond.

I think there are major challenges for government scientists in particular, as we’re already hearing about pressure to change language or not discuss some topics that the administration deems controversial. More broadly, there are challenges for continued funding for research, particularly research that does not appear to immediately offer a health or commercial benefit. And there are of course real challenges to conducting the research we need now – on climate change and other critical issues – before it is really too late.

…public trust of scientists is still relatively high – we are generally trusted to speak the truth based on the data, rather than spread fake news…

On the bright side, there are opportunities, because much of the American public doesn’t buy all of the current administration’s rhetoric, and that may mean more opportunities for scientists to bring a more rational approach to current debates. Perhaps, people are more likely to listen now, because according to the Pew Research Center, public trust of scientists is still relatively high – we are generally trusted to speak the truth based on the data, rather than spread fake news.

album copyNH: Science Talk ’17 looked like a great event. What did you learn from it which will make Science Talk ’18 even more exciting?

AC: Science Talk 2017 was a ton of fun! We featured great keynote talks and presentations, including a highly touted talk from a high school student about how to really reach teenagers using social media. We received excellent feedback from conference attendees – they loved the idea and many of the talks, but they wanted more networking time and more hands-on workshops.

We’ve implemented these changes in the 2018 schedule, which is available on our website. Rather than having keynote talks over lunch, we now have open lunch breaks, and an evening networking reception on the first night (March 1st).

We also have 3 concurrent sessions for much of the conference – podium talks in our main room, and two breakout rooms with active workshops in a more intimate format. These workshops highlight core communication skills, such as delivering an elevator pitch, using PowerPoint successfully, or working with the media.

We’re also featuring a public Science on Tap event this year that is open to everyone, and the following day, we’ll work with the Science on Tap speaker to dissect his talk, letting the whole group think about how to craft a successful public science presentation. I’m excited about the great work of our program committee and think the 2018 conference will be terrific.

NH: Science and great communications should be for everyone. Who do you think will benefit the most from coming to Science Talk ’18?

AC: Science Talk is intentionally broad. Our target audiences are working scientists and other STEM professionals, students/trainees who want to improve their skills and maybe consider career options in science communication, journalists, science communication trainers, communications directors for science groups – you get the idea.

Our goal is to be an inclusive organization where all those passionate about science communication can come together for two days of ideas, networking, training, and fun.

NH: This sounds amazing!  What else would you like to say to readers?

AC: We are looking to grow! We welcome volunteers for our committees, and partner or sponsor organizations. People interested in helping out should email Science Talk, or contact me directly.

I also want to thank Washington State University Vancouver for their support of my science communication efforts and of the 2017 and 2018 conferences.

 

Allison Coffin is a passionate science communicator with 15 years of experience conducting science communication workshops. Her mission is to help scientists better engage with diverse audiences and to spread the love of science far and wide. 

You can connect with Allison directly either by email (details above) or through LinkedIn.

Header image for this post courtesy of Science Talk.

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