Whose job is it to convey scientific discoveries to the public? Many scientists would say, “Not me.” But, traditional newspapers and other media outlets have been hit hard by the economic downturn, which offers scientists an unprecedented opportunity to communicate directly with the public. And the University of Missouri, Columbia, plans to help them do it.
“Communicating in understandable ways has not been part of the normal training of scientists,” says Jack Schultz, professor of plant sciences and the HHMI program director. “We’re going to try to change that.”
The university will use part of its $1.5 million HHMI grant to create an interdisciplinary program with the renowned University of Missouri School of Journalism to prepare up-and-coming scientists to communicate with—even educate—the public.
“We want people to understand the value of what we’re doing,” Schultz says.
A select group of sophomores, juniors, and seniors will receive support to do full-time summer research plus spend two part-time semesters in a research lab. These HHMI undergraduate research fellows will meet weekly with graduate student mentors to read and discuss popular media reports of topics related to their research area and understand how the lay media reports scientific information.
Undergraduate journalism students will be embedded in research labs with the fellows and will collaborate to create and contribute to the Online Media Lab, a new science media portal that will carry traditional print stories as well as videos, podcasts, and blogs produced by the students. The students will also use emerging social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. The National Newspaper Association will make the students’ stories available to more than 2,400 U.S. newspapers, and a media tracking service will determine which of their stories are picked up by the press or viewed online.
The journalism students will be exposed to how science is done and the scientists-in-training will learn to communicate in a way that engages the public. Schultz hopes the journalists will frequently ask the HHMI fellows, “So what? Why would my readers care about this?”
“The presence of journalism students will encourage the science students to pay attention to the broader meaning of their work,” he says.