Freelance Science Writer,
Scientists keep up with the latest research developments by reading scholarly journals and attending science conferences, but how does the general public receive this information? When a freak storm hits or a new species of fish is discovered, how do news reporters find experts to help them explain the science?
Most colleges and universities have public information officers (PIOs) who keep the public informed about research taking place at the university. PIOs issue press releases and newsletters, but they also help media outlets find experts on topics in the news. Sometimes, PIOs must locate researchers with a specific expertise on very short notice, especially when a breaking news story offers an opportunity to share the science behind the event.
Public institutions and non-profit organizations have public outreach programs that educate people about science in general, especially scientific issues at the forefront of current events. Communications offices organize community events, science fairs, science cafes, or exhibits where nonscientists can converse with scientists in an informal setting.
Public affairs officers (PAOs) in government agencies handle similar responsibilities, and they oversee their agency's official communications to ensure accuracy, security, and adherence to policy. They help keep the taxpaying public informed about their agency’s work, and they act as the agency's spokespeople to ensure that various sources within the agency are not issuing conflicting or confusing information.
Some government agencies sponsor public outreach programs. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) gives tours of its campus in Gaithersburg, MD, led by a science communications specialist from its public affairs office, and the Office of Naval Research produces and staffs hands-on exhibits at science conferences.
Government agencies also have legislative affairs offices that provide information about their agency’s activities to legislators and other policymakers. Legislative affairs officers keep their own agencies informed on legal and policy issues that affect them.
Communications professionals also work in industry These individuals focus on presenting their company’s message to the public and ensuring that the company’s positive contributions are communicated to such groups as stockholders, reporters, employees, and people who live in the communities where the company operates. . In addition to announcing new products and services, they issue press releases and write informational articles about their company's research and development activities. This helps to enhance the company’s image by showcasing their efforts to stay at the leading edge of their field.
Museums, including science museums, organize tours and classes, school visits, citizen-scientist programs, and other efforts to educate the general public. Chemistry graduates can curate collections, develop exhibits and informational signs and brochures, and put together books based on exhibits.
Professional societies often organize outreach activities for the public at their national meetings. They issue press releases to notify media outlets of significant research that has just been presented or published, and they provide access to experts who can make public presentations or give interviews to the media. ACS sponsors Reactions, a series of short, entertaining videos about chemistry topics that run on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdJ9oJ2GUF8Vmb-G63ldGWg.
Science communications specialists also assist scientists in communicating directly with the public. Some organizations have “ask an expert” programs that help people outside the organization reach someone with relevant knowledge when they have a question or need someone to speak on a particular topic. They also help scientists prepare to speak with groups that could be skeptical or hostile to their message and provide information to help resolve contentious or controversial community issues.
Communications offices offer media training to scientists, preparing them to give clear, informative interviews over the phone or on camera. They train scientists to communicate the relevance and significance of their research, in terms that are interesting and understandable to nonscientists, and they help scientists explain the connections between their research and current issues of concern.
Some professional societies and universities assist their scientists in communicating with legislators and government agencies on issues and policies that touch on their areas of expertise. Communications specialists assist the scientists in drawing the line between reporting their research (presenting factual information) and engaging in advocacy (pushing for a particular outcome).
On occasion, science communications specialists are called on for “crisis communications,” providing information to the media and the general public after a natural disaster, fire, or other emergency. Some organizations require a communications officer to be on call any time of the day or night in the event of such emergencies. They may provide lines of communications between upper management and first responders on the scene, or they may keep the press informed during situations where access to the scene is limited.
Typical work duties include the following:
There are several entry points to careers in public information and related positions. Some PIOs have bachelor's or master's degrees in communications or journalism, and they may have several years' experience working as journalists. Others have science degrees, and they enter the field either directly out of college or after working several years as laboratory scientists.
Several universities offer degree programs in science communications. The University of California Santa Cruz offers one of the best-known science communications programs, which has an entry requirement of a science degree and some research experience. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University offer master's degrees in science writing. The University of Florida in Gainesville offers a master's in science and health communications, and the University of Indiana's science and health journalism program offers a course in public-affairs reporting. In all there are a number of excellent science writing programs around the country, including Columbia University, the University of Missouri at Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison .
Many scientists who go into communications learn on the job and develop skills by taking workshops and attending conferences. Likewise, science communications specialists who begin in general communications can attend workshops and obtain fellowships to attend intensive science writing and science communications training programs. A relatively new and unique training is one offered by Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which uses improvisation techniques to help scientists better “read” their audience and make a meaningful connection with them.
Licenses are not generally required for science communications specialists. The Public Relations Society of America offers optional certifications for public relations managers.
Science communications specialists generally work in offices, although they may work outdoors if they are giving tours or working at an event. They sometimes visit laboratories to understand more about the work that goes on there. Most of the time, they work regular hours, although they may be called to work overtime for a special event or to cover an emergency.
Depending on the specific position, they may travel to field offices or branch locations of their organizations. They may also attend professional conferences and give presentations or manage exhibits and activities.
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Students or postdocs who wish to explore careers in science communications can start blogs (text or video) about their own research, or they can write guest posts on established science blogs. They may offer to write press releases and newsletter items for their university's public affairs office or their local ACS section. This offers good experience in writing for general audiences, working on a deadline, and adapting to a specified writing style and length. It also helps build a portfolio of work to show potential employers.
Entry-level positions include working in university, government, nonprofit organization, or industrial public affairs or press offices. Such positions usually involve writing press releases and research news items, writing content for blogs and websites, arranging media interviews for scientists, preparing and staffing exhibits and tours, or producing podcasts and videos.
Experienced communications specialists may take positions as public communications directors, which entails managing other communications specialists, coordinating with upper management on outreach efforts and communications strategies, and preparing responses to emergencies and sensitive issues. They may act as official spokespeople for their organizations. Larger organizations may have positions for vice presidents of public relations or corporate communications.
Alternatively, experienced communications professionals may go into independent consulting after they have established their reputations and professional networks. They may advise clients on communications strategies, help them with special projects, offer media training to their clients' employees, or help them prepare crisis communications responses. Some communication professionals also move over to journalism at some point in their careers—working for magazines, newspapers, broadcast outlets, wire services, or web publications.
Opportunities in public information remain strong, especially as organizations place more emphasis on communicating their research programs and accomplishments to outside audiences. A strong science background is a definite advantage for positions connected with research organizations and scientific efforts.
A 2013 survey by the National Association of Science Writers showed that 642 of their members are staff writers for academic institutions, hospitals, private companies, government agencies, or nonprofit institutions, which is a nearly 20% increase from 2011.
Entry-level applicants may find themselves competing with seasoned journalists who face a shrinking job market in newspapers and magazines. However, a science degree often offers an advantage for science-related PIO jobs. In a 2014 interview with Nature, Dennis Meredith, a research communication consultant, noted that, “When a journalist becomes a PIO, it can be a little like a foodie becoming a chef. They don’t necessarily understand the internal institutional process.” Meredith, a biochemist by training, formerly worked as a PIO at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, as well as at Cornell and Duke Universities.
Establishing a reputation by blogging or writing on a volunteer basis during college can put you on more equal footing with experienced writers, as can establishing a network of professional colleagues who can serve as information sources and alert you to opportunities.
Science communications requires a broad general knowledge of a range of scientific fields and research areas, as well as the ability to see how these fields relate to the organization's overall mission. Communications specialists must tailor their message to the intended audience (management, government officials, junior high science students, etc.). This requires an ability to talk to lay audiences in understandable terms without "dumbing down" the information.
Communications skills are vital, including writing, speaking, presenting visual information, and interacting with journalists, policy-makers, and the public on a formal or informal basis. Because science communications specialists cover many different programs within their organizations, they must be able to come up to speed quickly on a variety of topics, which is a skill that is sometimes referred to as being an "instant expert." They must also have an understanding of how their agency, institution, or organization works and be able to articulate its mission and activities.
Depending on the organization, the job may involve a simple reporting of factual information, integrating information from various sources into a coherent theme, offering interpretations of events and policy decisions, advocating for a specific position on an issue, presenting an organization in the best possible light, or presenting information that advances a specific program or agenda. Science communications specialists must understand which of these functions they serve, and adhere to ethical guidelines that delineate facts from opinions and reporting from advocacy work.
Communications specialists read a wide variety of science journal articles, patents, grant awards, and other background sources to stay current on the activities of their organization and the wider environment in which it operates. A solid science background is very helpful in understanding research publications and technical presentations.
Opportunities in scientific public information remain strong, especially as organizations place more emphasis on communicating their research programs and accomplishments to outside audiences. Employers include academic institutions, hospitals, private companies, government agencies and contractors, museums, and nonprofit institutions and societies.
Public information and outreach specialists may enter the field with degrees in science, journalism, communications, or related topics. Scientists can learn communications by taking courses, workshops, and learning on the job, or they may pursue a master's degree in science writing or communication. It is not uncommon for scientists to go into communications after working for several years in a research or laboratory environment
Salaries for communications and public information specialists vary widely, depending on the job sector, size of the organization, and level of experience required. For full-time staff science writers, median annual salaries between $50,000 and $75,000 were reported.