Like doctors, lawyers, sportswriters, or monks, scientists commonly
use jargon. They are trained to talk and write for their scientific
peers in a prescribed style that lay people often find incomprehensible
or can't relate to. In addition, scientific fields have become so
specialized today that researchers in different disciplines often find
it hard to understand one another's lingo.
But at the same time, issues demanding scientific knowledge
permeate the media, schools, courts, and Congress. The web, newspapers,
and airwaves are filled with discussions on climate change, sea-level
rise, endangered marine life, ocean pollution, energy resources,
evolution, and natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and
In an editorial in the prestigious journal Science, former
editor-in-chief and Stanford University President emeritus Donald
Kennedy wrote, "Science and technology are increasingly relevant to
public policy, and unless those who speak for science can be understood,
the policy decisions are likely to be wrong."
WHOI scientist Chris Reddy thought he and colleagues could do a
better job explaining their research to the media and other audiences.
Meanwhile, longtime science journalist Lonny Lippsett believed that
scientists had untapped opportunities to communicate valuable
information. They merged their complementary experience and disparate
cultures to create a course for oceanography graduate students in the
MIT/WHOI Joint Program called "How not to write for peer-reviewed
journals: Talking to everyone else." The goal was to offer
early-career scientists encouragement and skills to venture beyond their
laboratories and add much-needed clear and accurate information to
crucial issues under public debate.
The class was voluntary, and the students received no academic
credit for it. Yet, this class and another given in 2008 were filled--a
sign that these students recognize the imperative, and their
responsibility, to communicate science effectively to a variety of
The class included guest lecturers from the WHOI Web and Graphics
teams and several journalists (e.g. from the Providence Journal and the
local National Public Radio station, WCAI), who offered firsthand
guidance on interviewing, writing, graphics, photography, and
multimedia. Each student was also connected with his or her own mentor:
a professional science journalist (e.g. Dick Kerr of Science magazine,
Frank Pope, ocean correspondent for T, Se Times in London, and two
former Los Angeles Times journalists who won Pulitzer Prizes). These
mentors volunteered to give the students step by-step training through
the editorial process of creating the articles on their research in this
issue of Oceanus. The mentor-student relationships also helped show
students that journalists need not be adversaries--rather, they are
important conduits of scientific information to the public.
We anticipate that as these students graduate and become leaders in
their fields, they'll continue to speak for science.
This issue of Oceanus magazine resulted from a science
communications course for graduate students in the MIT/WHOI Joint
Program called "How not to write for peer-reviewed journals:
Talking to everyone else." WHOI Senior Scientist Chris Reddy was
supported to teach the course by the Henry L. and Grace Doherty
Professor of Oceanography chair. Publication of the magazine was
supported by WHOI Trustee Geoffrey A. Thompson and WHOI Corporator
Nathaniel J. Bickford.