Translating research findings for laymen

Part-time professor Caitlin Schrein wants the work of her graduate anthropology students to go beyond an audience of academics who read leather-bound journals and obscure research papers.

Schrein, who leads a graduate course called “Public Understanding of Science,” teaches aspiring scientists to relay complicated research findings for laypeople – a concept the University wants its own established researchers to start putting into action.

“Public understanding of science in general is not just about trying to persuade or convince people that what you think as a scientist is right,” Schrein said. “Scientists have to be able to effectively communicate science for the betterment of society generally.”

GW’s nearly final 10-year plan, which is marked with millions of dollars to improve the University’s research status, will also encourage researchers to more aggressively convey their work to the public. Schrein said this was an unusual focus for a university.

“This is a pressing national need,” Provost Steven Lerman said. “Fewer and fewer people in the general public I think understand the nature of scientific research and its value to society, partly because many of the research areas are complicated.”

The University will look to push back against this ignorance, according to the plan, by increasing researchers’ work with GW’s public relations arm. The office hired Lisa Van Pay, a former spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, two months ago as director of research communications.

“I think it will make the case why research is so important,” Lerman said. “Research and development is one of the great engines of the American economy. I think it’s because – perhaps – because we in science and technology have not explained that well, perhaps it’s been undervalued.”

Murray Loew, a professor of engineering, said he teaches his students to have a 20-second elevator speech – as well as an hour-long presentation that includes the technical details – prepared about their projects.

“The point is to focus on the importance and not the details,” Loew said. “ ‘How is this useful? What will the benefits be in the future?’ and so on.”

Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said executing that communications pitch also helps the University’s reputation if more people view GW as a place where beneficial research occurs.

He pointed to recent anthropology research about the origins of barefoot running, which earned GW a mention in a New York Times article.

But the emphasis on public communication of science can also water down research, said Chet Sherwood, an associate professor of anthropology. He said researchers need to strike between correctly reporting the science and over-simplifying it.

“It’s our obligation, I think, to be able to very clearly try to explain the significance of our research. But science can be bogged down in rather technical terminology, and there are always caveats to being able to generalize your findings,” he said.

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