Science communicators or science mediators?

I have always thought about science communication in terms of bridging worlds that don’t know how to talk with or understand one another.  For example, when I look at data, like those in the chart below by the Pew Research Center/AAAS, depicting the wide gaps between scientists and the general public on a variety of scientific issues, I have always seen a form of communication breakdown. In fulfilling our “social contract” with society, our task then becomes one of stepping outside the confines of the ivory tower and communicating with the public by listening, engaging, and relating.


But in some cases, this framing may not be quite right.  At times, the gap is created, not by a lack of understating, but by an open resentment; the public is deaf to the conclusions of the scientific community, not because they don’t understand science or the scientific community, but because they actively don’t like how they have been treated by scientists. It’s an issue of tone and respect.  There are some within the scientific community who hold view of the public in low regard (perhaps because they themselves have been treated with disrespect). There are others who subscribe to a view of scientism that elevates the natural sciences in relation to all other ways of knowing the natural world and holds “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.”  They are dismissive of the arts, the humanities, religion, and pragmatic experience as ways to know and understand the natural world, and they can be quite aggressive in expressing that dismissive attitude.

Many of us know what it feels like to be the recipient of such disdain and derision (for example, from climate skeptics) and have learned how to deal with it, generally by accepting it as part of the terrain and ignoring it (here is a nice essay by Aaron Huertas on the topic).  Trolls will always use the comments section, private emails and separate blog posts as a form of cyber-bullying.  But how do we handle it when those same tactics are being used by other academics; either on members of the general public, or even on us?   How much harder does the job of science communication become when that activity precedes our efforts? What kind of a negative residue do they leave?  We know more about the attacks on scientists because we read about and relate to them personally.  But how much do the attacks by scientists enter our sense of the communication landscape?

We need to consider how the tone of some in the scientific community alters the landscape on which others in the scientific community seek to communicate.  We need to learn to both communicate and mediate science, and the latter requires a different set of skills than the former; such as dispute resolution, negotiations, conflict de-escalation and an ability to be seen (even more) as an objective and trusted neutral party.  Our efforts must not be targeted just with the public, but also with the community of scientists. This inward effort makes our challenge far harder than much of the science communication literature lets us believe. And, it may be worth considering whether the context and expectations of a scientist do not naturally align with that of a mediator – it is a significant shift, one that we may not be suited to fill.  For example, can we really be seen as neutral to science when we are, in fact, scientists?

Leaving that question aside for now, we as aspiring science communicators need to recognize that there are both opportunities for engagement and obstacles of animosity and hostility on all sides of the scientific debates in our country.  There are people – including some within the scientific community – who have no desire to bridge any scientific understanding gaps, and who hold the differing views of others in very low regard and with deep derision.  And they may even hold our efforts at bridging in similar resentment as being appeasers or “accommodationists.”  This makes our role more complicated.  We are not just communicating science on a landscape of open engagement and understanding; we must also mediate science on a landscape of open hostility and warring factions.

My thanks to Tracey Holloway and Jessica Hellman for helpful feedback on this essay.

Around the World in 80 Ways: 4 Tips for Leading Global Initiatives

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Picture a map of the world. One large enough to walk on. Go to your hometown and place a pin there. Now, identify the locations of where you have conducted research, and where you have collaborators, friends, and relations, and place different coloured pins at each of their locations. Take some string and link everyone together. What do you get?

My bet is that most of us will weave a pretty tangled web. If you were to walk from one end of the map to another, it would be hard not to trip. The Leopold program may be focused on North America, but our networks are global.

Leading change is hard at the best of times, but doing it across different cultures, communication styles, and time zones can be especially challenging. There are just so many opportunities to trip up. Words, for example, can mean different things to people from different parts of the world. The word “science” in North America is usually taken to refer to the natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics. In continental Europe, however, the word “science” is closer in meaning to its Latin root, scientia, or “knowledge,” and so is taken to mean any discipline that creates knowledge, whether it be the natural sciences, the social sciences the humanities, or even the arts.

This may seem a trivial example but it can have important implications. In 2010 I helped found an organization called the Global Young Academy, which has as its primary mission “to be the voice of young scientists around the world.” Obviously, the definition of science is crucial here, because it determines which disciplines will be represented as part of the GYA and on whose behalf the organization speaks. For the record, while there was much debate among the 60 or so individuals at the founding meeting, we settled on the more inclusive definition of science as “knowledge creation.”

Definitions aside, my time with the GYA has taught me a lot about working and leading effectively across different cultures. Here are a few of the things I have learned along the way*:

  1. How you say something matters as much as what you say – In North America we tend to be direct and blunt. We say what we mean, mostly, and we think this is a good thing because it reflects values such as authenticity and openness. However, being too direct can be interpreted by some cultures, in Africa and Asia especially, as being tactless and undiplomatic. Lacking directness, of course, can seem manipulative or fake. Effective cross-cultural communication starts by acknowledging these differences exist and then finds effective ways to move the conversation beyond them.
  2. Listen to what others are saying – It seems trivial but it is remarkably hard to do, especially if you are like me and tend to interject when you come across an idea that is particularly intriguing (I call it building on an idea, my wife calls it interrupting). The thing is, what you find so interesting may not be the message your partner is trying to communicate, so when you interject too much you run the risk of not actually hearing what that person is trying to say. So bite your tongue a bit and let them say it.
  3. Acknowledge that you’ve been listening – Thank your interlocutor for sharing their thoughts and paraphrase back to them what you heard them say to indicate that you’ve understood their message. Use phrases like “What I hear you saying is…” or “Is what you meant….”
  4. Identify and work towards common goals – There is nothing quite like a common goal (and a deadline) to focus everyone’s attention. Identify what you are trying to achieve early on, and spell out the steps needed to get there. You want everyone pulling in the same direction, not going in circles or working at cross-purposes.

Getting to the last point is the most challenging and the most rewarding. One approach we use at GYA meetings is to provide a semi-structured opportunity, involving small group discussions and lots of note-taking on white boards, to identify the challenges and obstacles faced by our members in achieving excellence and impact in their work. It takes a few minutes for people to warm up but, when they do, the scene turns into something like the “Airing of the Grievances” (remember the Festivus episode from Seinfeld)? However, there is deeper value here: it gets people talking, it gives them an opportunity to be heard, and, more practically, it often identifies a series of cross-cutting issues that we can work on over the next year. In another post I’ll discuss some of these issues and what we’ve been doing to address them.

Navigating the tangled web of intercultural differences that come with working in a global context can be hard and, at times, frustrating. But the pay-off can be great. The challenge is to turn the tangled web into a rich tapestry. These four simple tools can, in my experience, go a long way towards improving communication across cultures and building a global team.

*With the help of a training session in intercultural communication and conflict management provided by Dr. Hanna Milling. You can see examples of her excellent work at

Rees Kassen, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Professor and Research Chair in Experimental Evolution at the University of Ottawa and Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy.