Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.

With public engagement, it’s also okay to start small

Yesterday, I had a post about how it’s okay to start small when it comes to learning R or any other new technical skill. Today’s post takes that same “it’s okay to start small” message and applies it to public engagement.

Sometimes, a colleague will ask about a recent public engagement activity my lab worked on. After I describe it, they sometimes say something like “I’d like to do more outreach work, but my lab isn’t as big as yours – I don’t have those people to help me!” Often, that is said with a sense of resignation that it won’t be possible for them to do outreach. Or perhaps the conversation centers around an upcoming NSF proposal, where a colleague is trying to figure out what they could propose for the broader impacts section, feeling like they want (or need) to propose something, but that there’s no way for them to do that if they are just starting out or haven’t done much public engagement in the past. In these conversations, my messages are:

  • it’s okay to start small, and
  • take advantage of existing opportunities.

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Put your take home message at the top of your slides!

Imagine you’re sitting in a talk. It’s Thursday morning at the ESA meeting and your brain is a little fried from sitting in lots of talks all week. You momentarily zone out, then try to turn your attention back to the talk. Which of these would be most useful to see on the slide as you tune back in?

Option 1:

Option 2:

Option 3:

You chose option 3, right? (If you are curious about the data, you can read a preprint here.)

Maybe you aren’t always giving a talk on Thursday morning during a jam-packed meeting, but there will always be people in your audience who are tired or get distracted. Make life easier for your audience by putting your take home message for each slide at the top!

Or, to quote Stanley Dodson*: “Make your top line your bottom line!”

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Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

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Concerned about the US tax bill? Here’s what to do.

Last week, the United States Senate passed a tax bill that would have major implications for universities. This comes on the heels of a bill that passed the US House of Representatives, which contained provisions that would make it much more costly to be a student. To quote from a piece by the University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Michael V. Drake,

The House bill would repeal current tax incentives, including the Student Loan Interest Deduction (which in 2014 helped 12 million taxpayers), the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants (which helped close to 145,000 people in 2011-12), and the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

 

This means interest on student loans would be treated just like credit card interest — neither would be deductible, at a time when many are struggling to repay their student loans. Graduate students who work their way through school by serving as research or teaching assistants receive tuition waivers that would be taxed. And students and parents from families with moderate incomes will no longer be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified higher education expenses from their taxable income.

The House bill would also repeal or devalue key credits that help low- and middle-income students, including the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Hope Scholarship Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The lower-income students who use these credits are those who can least afford to pay more for their educations.

The main hope at this point comes from the House and Senate having passed very different bills. The House bill contains the provision that would mean tuition waivers are no longer tax-exempt. The Senate bill does not contain this provision.

We’ve now reached the stage where the House and Senate bills have be reconciled — that is, where legislators and their staffers need to work out the differences between the two bills (which, as I said above, are pretty different). Universities are working hard to make sure that the final legislation does not include the House version of the grad student tuition waiver (or lack thereof).

One piece of information that came to light yesterday about a mistake in how the Senate bill taxes corporations means that it is more likely that the reconciled bill will also get rid of the grad student tuition waiver, which is not good news for graduate students or universities. The reason for this is that legislators will want to fix that mistake to add back corporate tax deductions, which will increase the cost of the bill. They’re already at the $1.5 trillion max, so they need to do other things to increase revenue. Like tax grad students. In other words:

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the mistake also means the Senate is likely to have to vote again on the bill. But I think focus yesterday was on how ridiculous it is that Republicans passed legislation with such a major mistake in it (which is true), without also focusing on the implications of this for the grad student tax.

I asked people who know a lot about this what someone like me or the students I know who are concerned about this can do. There was universal agreement that it is really important for students and others who care about this to contact their Representatives and Senators to let them know how they feel. The National Humanities Alliance has a tool that will make this easier for you. You can use the standardized language they provide, or you can personalize things to your situation. I always get nervous when calling my policymakers (even though I usually end up just leaving a message rather than speaking to an actual person and, when I have spoken to a person, they’ve always been very polite). So, I write out what I want to say ahead of time.

One thing to consider for students: if you live somewhere like Ann Arbor where our representative (Debbie Dingell) already shares our concerns with the bills but are still registered to vote in another area (say, the place you grew up) and the person in that area does not share your concerns about the bill, it might be more effective to contact the person who does not currently share your concerns. And, if the debate continues through the holiday break, you can try to visit your Representative and Senators at their district offices!

Another question that comes up is whether to contact the local office number or the DC office. I’ve been told by some people that it’s better to call the DC office (and the tool I linked to above will help you figure out those numbers). But if you can’t get through there, you can try the local offices. If you are unsure of who your representative is, you can click here. (By the way, other folks say it doesn’t matter which office you call. Everyone agrees that the most important thing is that you call somewhere, with where you call being less important!)

So, I like Ethan White’s strategy:

You can change “review big chunk of PR” to “count one sample” or “write two paragraphs” or “make two slides” or whatever works for you. But, if you’re concerned about the potential changes to the tax code, make sure you carry out steps 2, 4, and 6!
December 8th Updates:
  1. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has more information on the proposed tax overhaul, suggestions for things you might want to highlight when talking to legislators, and information on how to take action.
  2. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is organizing a #DontTaxEducation campaign. Their message “Don’t let Congress deliver a disproportionate and unprecedented hit on higher education. Ask lawmakers to accept the Senate position on these provisions.” Their page will help you contact your legislators.

What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students

As I discussed last week, the most eye-opening part of the AAAS Leshner Fellows training that I did recently was the part about engaging with policy makers. This is a new area of engagement for me, and I was really interested in learning more about this. I was surprised to realize how interested I was in it — when I first read Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, the thought of engaging with policy makers was so anxiety-provoking to me that I felt ill. (It probably didn’t help that I was reading it on a plane going through turbulence.) Last week’s post covered some policy engagement fundamentals (make sure to read this great comment by Elliot Rosenthal on the importance of building community support before doing policy engagement). In this post, I will talk about what I learned on our visit to Capitol Hill. One of the most striking things to me was that, when meeting with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee, it took me a while to remember which one was the staffer working on the Republican side and which was on the Democratic side. Given all the talk of how divided things are in Washington, I hadn’t expected that! I also hadn’t expected the meeting would leave me not just with thoughts on how to engage with policy makers, but how to mentor students.

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How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

Last week, I visited Washington DC for training as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. I spent the week with the other 14 incoming Leshner Leadership Fellows, learning about writing and pitching opinion pieces, storytelling, evaluating outreach, and much more. But perhaps the thing that was the most eye-opening for me was our trip to Capitol Hill, where we met with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee as well as several staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). Prior to going, we got a tutorial from some AAAS folks on policy engagement fundamentals. In this post, I’ll go over the policy engagement fundamentals that I learned at AAAS, supplementing with things I learned in this free online course related to public engagement, which included several expert opinions on engaging with policy makers. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about what I learned from my visit to The Hill.

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What it was like to speak at the March for Science in DC

I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC on April 22. Last week, I gave the text of my talk. Yesterday, I had a post about how I prepared for the talk. Today’s post has more about the day of the march.

tl;dr: I was so nervous 10 minutes before speaking that my teeth were chattering, but, thanks to having practiced it obsessively in the week leading up to the talk, felt fine for the talk itself and ended up having fun at the march.

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How I prepared for my March for Science talk

I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC on April 22. Last week, I gave the text of my talk. This post talks about how I prepared for the talk. Tomorrow, I’ll have a post with more on the day of the march.

tl;dr for this post: it takes a whole lot of time to prepare a 2 minute talk. And, when talking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people, you need to leave time for applause; stick to the guideline of 150 words per minute, even if you think you speak faster than that.

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Text of Meghan’s March for Science Talk

I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC this past weekend. This post contains the text of what I said (as well as the slightly longer version that I originally prepared). I’m also working on posts that talk more about what it was like to prepare for the talk and to give the talk. Hopefully those will be done soon!

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