Building A Metro For Science Communication

“Doors Closing. Please stand clear of the doors.” For anyone who lives, or has spent time in Washington, D.C., you recognize this as the announcement just before the Metro pulls away from the station. The Metro is one of the things I miss most about living in Washington, D.C. Even in a commuter-friendly place like Portland (which I now call home), the bike lanes and MAX simply can’t move as many people to as many destinations with the efficiency of the Metro. The Metro provides something critical to a buzzing, busy city – people-moving infrastructure.


The DC metro moves 100,000’s of people a day. How many more scientists could engage with a science communication infrastructure? Photo courtesty of M G M via Flickr.

Infrastructure has been on my mind. The National Academy of Sciences’ Public Interfaces of Life Science Roundtable just completed our second day of workshops on the Sustainable Infrastructures of Life Science Communication. Our charge was to explore the infrastructure needed to support scientists engaging with the public, including exploring what gets in their way of successfully engaging. The details of our discussion were fascinating, inspiring, and sometimes frightening. For a deep dive into our conversations, check out this summary, videos (here and here), and these Storifies (here and here). Here, I take big step back, and look across our whole science communication infrastructure.

Our workshop opened with inspirational remarks from life scientists May Berenbaum, Nalini Nadkarni, Daniel Colon-Ramos and Craig McLain. These scientists, like many of you, have found a way to engage, even without the infrastructure that makes it easier. What if we had a functional infrastructure for science communication and engagement? How many more scientists could it move? How much easier would it be for those of you already engaging? It could be the difference between a city with a metro and a city without one.

It takes a complex network, structural system and multiple efforts to ensure the Metro can move people to multiple destinations every day (there are about 800,000 trips taken daily on the Metro). Infrastructures require not just ‘hard structures’ (physical networks), but also ‘soft structures’ (institutions and cultures). Here’s what it takes to build a robust infrastructure, and how I think we’re doing with regards to building one for science communication:


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DESTINATIONS  |  The Metro has many clear stops, stations, or destinations. 

When it comes to engagement, where are scientists trying to go? What are their destinations? There are a myriad of reasons why scientists engage. However, our workshops revealed that we are not sufficiently articulating all these engagement goals. And if we don’t know the destinations, we won’t know how to get there or if we’ve arrived. We heard broad goals like improve scientific literacy, have people know science is cool, or how science improves our lives. Others articulated more specific goals like conservation or healthier people. Dr. Dan Sarewitz rightfully challenged us on this point: the bottom line is that we need to be much clearer in defining why we communicate.


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PATHWAYS  |  The Metro has multiple different lines to support people moving to different destinations.  

The practice of science communication is a growing field. Pathways for scientists to help them engage include things like communication trainings (like COMPASS, the Leopold Leadership Program or NSF’s Becoming the Messenger), support from boundaries organizations (like COMPASS), efforts that bring scientists to classrooms (like GK-12) or to local communities (like DC Science Café or NAS’ Science Ambassadors). All of these are needed. And often you’ll need to take multiple trains to get to a single destination, and sometimes you’ll take different trains as your destination changes. Can we leverage each other’s efforts, knit our system together, and avoid re-inventing pathways others have invented (or at least learn from each other)?


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ORGANIZATIONS  The Washington Transit Authority is the lead Metro authority. Many other institutions are involved (e.g., Metropolitan (D.C.) Police Department, Fairfax County, State of Maryland).

Multiple organizations play a role in scientist engagement, including universities, industry, NGOs, government agencies, funding agencies, boundary organizations, the National Academies, and scientific societies. We don’t lack for organizations that are contributing and wanting to contribute more. But, what we do lack is a science communication “transit authority” – a thoughtfully guided central entity, or community of practice, to help us share our successes and failures, leverage our impacts, and keep from re-inventing the wheel.


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POLICIES  Rules (e.g., No food or drink on the metro).

Science communication policies are broken or non-existent in most (but, not all) places. Academia’s promotion and tenure system needs to start incentivizing engagement. Graduate STEM education should teach and prioritize communication (#Gradscicomm is trying to change this). Government agencies need to find ways to support federal scientists to engage more freely. While some are trying to do this, like NOAA with its scientific integrity policy, Kathyrn Foxhall shared a broader, sobering perspective on restrictions and censorship of federal employees. We do not yet have consistent policies that support science communication.


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CULTURE The escalator culture in Metro stations of “stand on the right, walk on the left” is strong. It helps reduce congestion and move people faster.

Scientific culture runs deep, and has largely created a culture steeped in credibility, inquisitiveness, and accountability. But, the byproducts of this culture are antithetical to communication. It is focused on data not people, being right before being open, an avoidance of talking about yourself (i.e., not letting yourself be a character in the story), and tenure being a precursor to speaking up. Some great efforts are underway to change these cultural norms. For example, “This is what a scientist looks like” or scientists supporting one another through the #reachingoutsci hashtag. Be the change you want to see, and the culture can change.


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RESEARCH  |  Building the Metro required elaborate engineering, geophysical, social, and economic data, tools, and research.

The growing field of the science of science communication offers us critical insights. NAS’ Sackler Colloquium on the topic is beginning to be a hub for this information, appropriately noting that given the weight of evidence scientists rely on for their research, they should not rely on hunches when it comes to communicating their research. The practitioners and researchers of science communication must be better connected. Practitioner Rick Borchelt and researcher Bruce Lewenstein did a great recap of what we know about science communication from their perspectives during our workshop. These types of collaborations are beginning to form, but more of them need to happen. We must build our practices and infrastructure based on what we know, observe and learn, rather than just on what we suspect to be true.


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BUILDING  |  The Metro had to be built. People built it. We invested in the building.

We have been building a science communication infrastructure, but it’s happening piecemeal. It’s time to get serious about better defining and describing the above characteristics of a sustainable infrastructure, so we can build smarter and build more efficiently. Funding an infrastructure won’t be easy (we had a stellar panel of funding experts discuss this). But we won’t invest in building the infrastructure without carefully laid out and informed destinations, pathways, policies, cultures, and research.

Fast-forwarding 40 years, this planet will support nine billion people. Every one of those people will need food, water, and energy and will want to live healthy, long lives. We rely on science and technology to survive and to improve our lives. Yet, our knowledge is changing so fast that the public is often unaware of potential benefits and consequences. If scientists can’t communicate effectively and powerfully, and find their way to the relevant audiences, they will not be at the tables where discussions are happening and decisions are being made. With a better infrastructure for science communication, we can support exponentially more scientists to engage and communicate with the wider world. The stakes feel too high not to do this. Where will you start helping to build our infrastructure?



About Brooke Smith

Brooke Smith is the Executive Director of COMPASS. She spends a lot of time thinking about the friction - yet incredible need - for science to be closer to society. She is in awe, and appreciative, of the scientists that are paving the way by getting out there and sharing their science, knowledge and insights with the wider world. It motivates her to ensure COMPASS continues to thrive, to support scientists to find their voice, and to join the most relevant conversations.


  1. You left out Tools for communication from your list (although it might fit in Pathways). To reach and engage with non-specialists, scientists must learn to communicate through media that are preferred and readily accessible–such as video and infographics. Few scientists have multimedia skills, however, and science students continue to be trained to communicate primarily via the written word and mainly with a technical audience. Training workshops and courses in science communication will help, but will reach only a minority……and many students and scientists will not have access to such opportunities. Providing the tools and knowledge to individual scientists and students is how I’ve been contributing to the infrastructure for science communication:

  2. Thanks Karen! Great point. I think it’s about both learning and practicing engaging with non-scientific audiences, and then also importantly – finding, learning and using the right tools to do that which can be lots of things from video, to op-eds, to lectures, to blogging, to writing popular articles. Thanks for sharing – it’s going to take all of us to build a comprehensive infrastructure.

  3. I love the idea of building a Metro for science communication. I do realize infrastructure is necessary to help scientists get where they are trying to go. But the fact is that some scientists are already getting there, on their own dime, with their own effort, and often with the help of friendly institutions. Scientists are engaged in local science communication efforts, choosing their own destinations, building their own pathways, and sharing a culture of engagement across the nation. As a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography I saw my peers deeply involved in Science Outreach (and some of the Faculty too). Now at University of Washington I see graduate students training other graduate students at the Engage Science Seminar series, bringing their research presentations to public venues in Seattle. A wise planer takes into account the destinations that already have passengers, and really makes an effort to understand the existing pathways, policies, and cultures. He or she builds upon what is already being done locally. After all, there is nothing worst than a great, but never-used Metro station.

    • Hi Ivan: I really appreciate your comments here. There are a lot of great things already happening, and need to continue to happen. I think, though, that w/ more investment in parts of the infrastructure (especially the cultural ones – which are changing), it would be even easier and quicker to get all those destinations, whatever they are. I look forward to discussing this with you more!

  4. An element of this that I would like to see develop further (and I’m absolutely interested in being involved in said development) is improving connectivity between people who already have science communication training and those who want to communicate about their science. I’m not talking about science journalists, although they are a key piece of the puzzle.

    Rather, I refer to people like myself, who live and work on the interface between science and the public – both personally and professionally. I don’t have a PhD in anything, but I have a decade of experience that all adds up to a passion and very real capacity to collaborate with scientists to improve communications between the “ivory tower” and policy makers and the general public.

    However, I work as a consultant, budgets are so often tight, and communication is not always a compelling line item. As a result, it is a perpetual challenge to sync my skills and motivation with the needs of scientists in a way that ensures we can all make a living.

    I would be seriously interested in any initiatives that incorporated communication practitioners like myself who are don’t have science PhDs and yet have considerable potential to advance science communication.

  5. Please excuse the typo in the final sentence. Good example of why we all need an editor.


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