#GradSciComm: How COMPASS Is Answering The National Demand For Science Communication Training

This post is co-authored by Liz Neeley and Erica Goldman.

With all of the speculation about the sequester’s possible impacts on science, one sobering conclusion feels clear: young scientists will be hit hard by cuts to federal science budgets. While new faculty may have some buffer, those dependent on the grants of others – like graduate students and postdocs – are already suffering a loss of projects and career opportunities. Paired with a job market where less than 20% of new science PhD’s can expect to find a tenure-track job, and it is a grim picture indeed. While much of this is far outside the control of an individual researcher, there is still an important role for personal action. Investing the time and energy to fine-tune communication skills not only makes scientists more competitive, but can also equip them to engage in critically important discussions about our most urgent social priorities. Now, more than ever, next-generation scientists on all career trajectories need to be effective communicators and advocates for why their work matters. (You can read some of our related blogs and articles on this topic here, here, and here.)

These skills are not innate; they can be learned and must be practiced. Fortunately, communication training is relatively straightforward and yields surprisingly large returns for the time invested.  Over the past decade or so, a variety of training programs have helped build pockets of strong science communications capacity. You might be familiar with COMPASS and our work with the Leopold Leadership Fellows, or NSF initiatives such as Becoming the Messenger, or Presentation Bootcamp, or perhaps new projects like the AAAS’ Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS). These efforts are complemented by deepening commitments to science communication offerings within universities around the country. Graduate deans and university presidents, together with faculty and graduate students, are driving real institutional change. Standout institutions include Stony Brook University, George Mason University, Michigan State University, University of Missouri, and the University of Washington. Still, we see demand for graduate communication training far outstripping the availability of courses and workshops. This underscores the need for a coordinated plan to connect, learn from, and scale up existing efforts so that we can create a national community of effective science communicators.

Journalist Jon Hamilton helps to facilitate a COMPASS workshop for School of Global Environmental Sustainability Fellows at Colorado State.

Jon Hamilton of NPR’s Science Desk helps to facilitate a COMPASS workshop for School of Global Environmental Sustainability Fellows at Colorado State. Photo by Liz Neeley.

For the past several months, COMPASS has been hard at work on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to take a close look at how to build systemic communication capacity for graduate students. Our shorthand for it is #GradSciComm. This effort fits neatly within the national discussions already underway about how to modernize graduate education. From the working groups organized by the National Institutes of Health, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy – to reports from the National Academies Board on Higher Education and Workforce or the American Chemical Society – serious thought and effort are being put toward the challenge of preparing students to enter the changing world of science and science-related careers.

COMPASS has taken on the #GradSciComm project in order to catalyze the development of a national roadmap for improving communication competencies among STEM graduate students. Our work has two main components: 1) We are creating a database of existing communications trainings and course offerings, and a knowledge map of the organizations and innovators at the leading edges of science communication in the U.S.**; and 2) We will be convening a workshop of administrators, scholars, practitioners, and those with access to the levers of institutional change in late 2013 to draft the vision document for networking, leveraging, and expanding communications trainings for science students.

But you don’t necessarily have to wait for this process to unfold either. If you’re currently a graduate student in a STEM discipline and eager for change, you can reach out to student groups like ENGAGE, or see if your campus made the ELISS priority list. Even better, submit your ideas to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Education Challenge – but do it quickly – entries are due April 15!

We also encourage you to be a part of our efforts as we move forward. For example, the database of trainings and courses is populated by a series of informational interviews we’ve been conducting, but ultimately, it must be crowdsourced. Have you taken a class or a workshop? Do you lead one yourself? Please share your knowledge with us here.  We’ll be blogging with updates as this effort progresses, and would love to hear from you via email ([email protected] or [email protected]) and Twitter in the meantime.

**To our knowledge, existing databases focus primarily on science writing courses and communication degrees. COMPASS is trying to fill in gaps in our understanding of communication training for those wishing to remain primarily in the sciences. 

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1255633. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

About Liz Neeley

Liz was an Assistant Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS.


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