This story originally appeared on Groundwire.org, a Seattle-based non-profit organization helps environmental organizations connect, inspire and mobilize their communities. (Disclosure: There are actually 6.0221415 x 10^23 ways to make science less sciency, but that would have defeated the point.)
Take a moment and think of something that doesn’t involve science. (Hint: it’s impossible)
Science is integral to every aspect of our lives. Yet, for as long as we’ve had scientists trying to make sense of the universe, the scientific community has struggled to find an effective way to communicate those stories to the general public.
While it may be of little consequence that the average person doesn’t fully grasp the formulas of quantum mechanics, many areas of science — like climate change and renewable energy — represent our most pressing public policy challenges. Without the ability to communicate in a way that is meaningful and accessible to any audience, scientists risk alienating themselves from the discussion altogether.
Environmental non-profits face a similar challenge in trying to communicate their message to their communities. Whether an organization is focused on tar sands or storm water pollution, it must be able to communicate complicated information in ways that mobilize people and inspire them toward action.
Below are three strategies from the scientific community that can help your organization frame its work and help people understand why it matters.
1. Turn your experts into expert communicators
One of the best ways to help people learn about complicated topics is to send them right to the experts.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Armed with Science project uses web technology, such as blogging, podcasting, and Twitter, to create one-on-one dialogs between its scientists and members of the public. The project aims to demonstrate the value of science and technology, while making scientists first-hand communicators of their own work. Rather than rehashing mission statements, scientists share their personal experiences and provide insight for those who might be interested in pursuing similar careers.
For the Dispatches from Antarctica series, Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Vaughan blogged for 50 days during his deployment to Antarctica, providing an inside look at scientific research conducted by the U.S. Antarctic Program. During his time on the ice, he took photographs, conducted video interviews, and even fielded questions from children at elementary schools around the world.
Identify a few subject matter experts in your organization who are interested in engaging stakeholders on important issues. Then, choose the appropriate forum to create authentic discussions with your community. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a real-time Facebook Q&A or a video chat in Google+ Hangouts.
2. Provide opportunities for people to contribute
As much as we all love textbooks and lectures, it’s certainly a lot easier to learn about something when you’ve got a stake in the outcome.
For decades, scientists have looked to volunteers from the public, known as “citizen scientists,” to contribute to real scientific studies — from frog monitoringto comet hunting to measuring noise pollution. Scientists are able to gather information that was previously unavailable, and volunteers have the opportunity to learn about and participate in scientific endeavors that are important to them.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch project uses citizen science to help study the relationship between nesting birds and climate change. Volunteers collect important data on bird nesting behavior, which scientists use to study population trends and breeding behaviors across different landscapes. In return, volunteers learn to make observations and collect data, an important part of the scientific process.
Identify opportunities to get input from your community. This can include simple feedback about your website, observations of certain phenomena, or user-generated videos and images. Acknowledge these contributions on Facebook and Twitter, and write a blog post that demonstrates how input from your community has improved the way your organization does business.
3. Collaborate with like-minded organizations
Though scientific research papers may not be the most palatable reading material, they do represent one of the core values of the scientific community — collaboration. For your average scientific paper, it’s not uncommon to have six or more authors, each with different skills, training, and expertise. By combining their resources and investing in common goals, scientists are able to answer questions and solve problems that might otherwise have been out of reach.
In the same way, collaborations can play an important part in achieving your communications goals. Small or emerging organizations can partner with large organizations to share their accomplishments and messages with a broader audience. This can be an effective way to build more awareness, while improving brand credibility through association with a better-known organization. Conversely, large organizations might partner with smaller organizations to communicate with local or niche communities. By highlighting their synergies, the collaborating organizations can provide the appropriate context to engage people on related but perhaps unfamiliar topics.
Identify organizations that have similar goals or work in a related field. This could include non-profit partners, potential donors, community groups, or a local newspaper. Demonstrate your interest in collaboration by mentioning them on your social media accounts or linking to their website in your newsletter. Determine how your resources, employees, and brand can be used to support their interests, and vice verse. Initiate a meeting to discuss how to collaborate in ways that benefit both organizations.