Stand up for science

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This year showed that good communication can make you a leader, and a better scientist, says Nancy Baron.


  1. Palmer, M. A. et al. Science 327, 148149 (2010).
  2. Bowman, T. E. et al. Science 330, 1044 (2010).
  4. AGU Release No. 10–37 (2010); available at
  5. Lubchenco, J. Science 279, 491497 (1998).
  6. Myers, R. A. & Worm, B. Nature 423, 280283 (2003).
  7. Worm, B. et al. Science 314, 787790 (2006).
  8. Worm, B. et al. Science 325, 578585 (2009).

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  1. Nancy Baron is science outreach director for COMPASS and lead communications trainer for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. She is based at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Santa Barbara, California 93101, USA. Her book Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter was published in August.

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  1. Report this comment #17013

    Richard Holliman said:

    Advocacy in the long tail

    Richard Holliman, Faculty of Science, The Open University, UK. ("Web":

    Baron (this issue) calls for scientists to communicate, and to do so effectively and enthusiastically. She uses an example from a training programme where a scientist, called Margaret Palmer, admitted that she was unwilling to respond to calls from “the press”. At least some of those in the audience appear to have shared Palmer’s concerns about communicating “with media and policy-makers”. How might we address this familiar set of arguments?

    First, it is worth emphasising that both ‘media’ and ‘policy makers’ are plural terms. Scientists can contribute to public debates in lots of different ways in the digital age: for example, a science blogger does not have to speak to “the press” unless they really want to. In short, if you want to communicate and have your words read or heard, write them or speak them yourself. And these approaches have the added benefit of chiming with current ideas about public engagement.1 You can learn a lot from communicating directly with interested members of the public, in particular if you use digital forms that encourage interaction and participation.

    Of course, there are also challenges to communicating in these ways. It is very time consuming to do well and you may find that you take on a grudging respect for the expertise of media professionals. And however much it sticks in your throat you are likely to use some journalistic skills if you want to generate and maintain an audience. If you doubt this, think about it the next time you write that catchy title (read headline) for your conference presentation or poster. As the sociologist Bruno Latour famously noted, there is nothing worse for an academic than for their work to be ignored.2

    At other times the challenge is overexposure. Certain scientists know this much to their chagrin, as the example of ‘climategate’ so brutally shows.3 In this sense the concept of a long tail distribution, when applied to audiences for the sciences, finds not only scientifically literate ‘fans’ in that long tail, but also advocates dedicated to their cause.

    There is no one solution to this complex problem, but programmes that support knowledge exchange can help. For example, scientists from different disciplines and sectors of the economy—academia and industry—can usefully share their experiences.4 Similarly, media professionals and science communication scholars can make valuable contributions to help ensure that the sciences are accurately represented, but also fairly debated in the public sphere.

    1. Holliman, R., Whitelegg, E., Scanlon, E., Smidt, S. and Thomas, J. (2009). (eds.) Investigating science communication in the information age: Implications for public engagement and popular media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    2. Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

    3. Holliman, R. (2011, in press). The struggle for scientific consensus: communicating climate science around COP-15, in Wagoner, B., Jensen, E. and J. Oldmeadow (eds.) Culture and social change: Transforming society through the power of ideas. Information Age Publishers, Charlotte, N.C.


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