Friday, July 23, 2010

Charm, Competition, and Communication

In the early 90’s, administrators at MIT realized that many of its students, while brilliant, were socially challenged. The bastion of engineering was producing geniuses that couldn’t give a decent handshake, talk to strangers, or dress reasonably. The solution? Charm School.

The university offered students the opportunity to fill any social holes that might have developed as a byproduct of possessing a superior technical intellect. The program was deemed a huge a success, and now in its 17th year, is popular and thriving.

Science researchers are another smart group that suffers from social deficits – namely the ability to communicating the importance of their work to those outside their fields. Should they be required to attend “Communication School”?

In 2007 there was a push from Congress to require scientists to do exactly that. The America Competes Act, which was a bill that intended to funnel big bucks to research powerhouses like the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Dept of Energy, contained provisions requiring graduate students “to be trained in the communication of the substance and importance of their research to non-scientist audiences”. While the 2007 Competes Act made it through both houses of Congress, and was signed by the President, select pieces of it were not funded during appropriations. One of the casualties was the science communication training.

The science outreach community was disappointed by the 2007 Competes Act, and hoped for a chance of redemption this year when the 2010 America Competes Act was being written. Unfortunately, any language concerning communicating to non-science audiences is conspicuously absent in the 2010 version. Nearly all of the outreach wording in the 2010 Competes Act specifically focuses on energy, STEM education, and commercial applications of research - a sign of the times.

There may be a glimmer of hope. For some time, NSF has required researchers to address the broader impact of their research when applying for grant money. It is unclear exactly how much weight is placed up this review criteria but applicants are supposed to emphasis how the work benefits society and/or broadens dissemination of scientific and technological understanding. This is a good start and there are murmurs the NIH will soon follow suit and require similar activities from their grant applicants.

It may seem like an impossible feat to get scientists communicating about their work, but if the students at MIT's Charm School can learn Israeli folk dance, surely scientists can learn to do a better job of explaining why people should care about their research.

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  1. I have long thought that public speaking, project and personnel management, and writing should be in the curriculum of every science PhD program. These are the skills that make or break science careers, but we get no training in these areas at all.

  2. Charm school for scientists?! How do I get my institution signed up?

  3. They had a version of this at my graduate school, except it was kept underground and quiet and you only qualified if you didn't speak fluent English. It did focus mainly on improving language skills, but my colleague who went also had some 'manners' and a bit of 'hygiene' thrown in as well.

  4. Three positive comments in 10 minutes. Very impressive.

    Wait till the Mad Spainard weighs in.

  5. On the subject of the Mad Spaniard, I was thinking the only thing geekier than an American scientist, was a European or Asian Scientist. I'm not a scientist myself, I just look like the cool one when I hang out with nerds, except for The Mad Spaniard, who makes me look like a nerd by association...

  6. Should be a required course for medical school.

    And an anti-course for Law School.

  7. Is there any research on the effectiveness of these programs?

  8. The blogger Matthew C. Nisbet has explored the effectiveness of science communication in great deal. His site is:

    If the 2010 Competes Act accomplishes what we hope it will - to make researchers think about and explain how their work benefits the public - then I would argue that it will immediately be very effective.