Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The thoughts of 17 science writers (and public policy experts, journalists, educators, editors, etc)

Emily Monosson is an independent toxicologist, writer and editor. You may have heard her name—she is the editor of the recent anthology, “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientist Speak Out.” I urge anyone who is interested in work/life balance or alternative careers to seek out this book; it’s not just for mothers! Although many contributors to this book have indeed managed to successfully balance family with traditional academic careers, a significant number also found success in the so-called “alternative careers.” In doing so, many forged entirely new career paths for themselves. Monosson’s book offers an enlightening and inspiring view of the many different careers possible in science.

In addition to her scientific and writing work, Dr. Monosson has spoken on various scientific career panels. I was recently honored to be asked for my input on a recent career panel discussion that she was putting together on the topic of parenthood, science, and alternative careers. Dr. Monosson sent out a brief survey to a number of science writers for their thoughts on their careers. What follows is a collection of responses from 17 very different writers. As you will see, these responses showcase the many many different forms that a career in “science writing” can take. Respondents included government public policy specialists, communication specialists, educators, at least one journalist and an editor at Science magazine. (By the way, I’m respondent #17 ). Dr. Monosson collected and summarized all our responses, and has generously agreed to allow me to post them here.

The Questions Asked in the Survey

“…I'm writing to you all because you've each indicated that writing is or has been a part of your work - and if you have a moment - I'd like to know if

1) you feel it is a satisfactory way to use your scientific training
2) if you feel you've left science behind or if you feel it's led to a broadening of your scientific knowledge base
3) any other thoughts you may have”

Emily Monosson’s Summary of the Responses

“For most writing about science satisfies the scientist in them, and while several sometimes feel a loss of the bench, the broad view of science (albeit shallower for some - not all) is viewed as a plus. Several also mentioned the need for scientists to do the kind of interpretation and synthesis that they do -- and finally several commented that reaching and possibly influencing a broader audience by writing is also a big plus to science writing.”

The Responses

Response #1: Writing for the public can be much more influential than
scientific papers (unless you're Darwin or Watson & Crick!)

Response #2: A critical function of my writing for this audience is education, so I have to synthesize scientific information for a lay audience. I do think it’s a very satisfactory way to use my scientific training…it’s serving the same function as my more scientific writing.

I feel like it’s broadened my scientific knowledge base. I was trained as an avian behavioral ecologist. My writing has focused more on the documented and predicted impacts of climate change on global biodiversity.

In general, I think this type of scientific writing is as important as writing scientific papers. The writing I’m doing now reaches a much larger population and I’d like to think it’s as impactful as my scientific papers.

Response #3: Most often my audience is Congress which I would consider lay readers. Here are a few quick thoughts.
Satisfactory isn't the word I'd use. Necessary is more like it. While my scientific knowledge is not often challenged, I would not want my job done by a non-PhD.

The research that I now report on is much different than that in which I studied. Therefore, I have a little regret that I left that part of science behind. But as far as leaving all of science behind, because of question 1, I'd answer no. I feel that because I'm fulfilling a need that is better in line with my interests and talents, I'm doing more for science now that if I were still in a lab.

Response #4: I did become a science writer in a way possibly only somewhere like the Washington DC area - I go to gov't science or science policy meetings and write them up (been doing this since 1989 first through contractors, then directly at NIH, and now semi-retired, through contractors again.

There is a really good discussion on the website of the National Association of Science Writers about what should come first, the science or the writing skills (obviously folks get into the field both ways). That part of the website is open to the public.
Of course in this days of cutbacks in science in newspapers and in science magazines, opportunities are somewhat more limited that even a few years ago.

Response #5:I was a Congressional Science Fellow in 1994-1995 and since then have been an earth science professor at Vassar. My CSF influenced me tremendously and I have tried to continue my work as a scientist as the same time as I communicate science to the public. My blog below lists two books that are part of that effort.

Response #6:I use my training in psychology and epidemiology to write op-eds for newspapers, articles for magazines and web sites, booklets for patients, as well as testimony for Congress and government meetings.
I enjoy it, especially compared to writing for scientific publications.

Response #7: Satisfactory? YES
Left science behind, or led to a broadening of your scientific knowledge base? THE LATTER

The late Stephen J. Gould is an superlative example of how a scientist can devote major efforts to communicating science to a lay audience without compromising their personal scientific or philosophical integrity.

Response #8: Satisfactory? Yes –I’m happy doing what I do.
If you feel you've left science behind or if you feel it's led to a broadening of your scientific knowledge base:both. I don’t do cutting edge research now (bad) but I know more about lots of things, and I don’t have to be first (good).

Response #9: I was fortunate to enjoy both the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship and the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship, both of which helped land me my current (dream) gig as an editor for science policy at Science magazine. So that's me, what I do. In answer to your questions:

1. absolutely
2. broader knowledge without question
3. i'm hungry, tired, and ready to go home. does that count?

Response #10:I have recently transitioned completely to a Science Communications position within the EPA from a science position (also at the EPA). I am mostly writing news releases, desk statements, content for web pages, and fact sheets as well as some resources for teachers and students. I love it and am very satisfied with my use of scientific training. I feel that translating science to the public is perhaps one of the most important aspects of actually doing the scientific research. I definitely do not feel that I have left science behind, as it is very much a part of everything I write or communicate; I am only making it make sense to the general public. It is still science. I am now part of a larger community of scientists and also exposed to more areas of science than before, for which I am grateful. I am very happy with my contribution to science and to the general public.

Response #11: I write reports and memos for Congress on science and engineering-related topics, tied to policy. My scientific training and career are essential, in many if not most instances, in helping translate the scientific issue or controversy to a non-scientific audience. I have left my own scientific career behind, surely, but this job requires that I keep abreast of the scientific discoveries in a broad array of fields, so I still attend scientific meetings and read journal articles. As a result, I have a much broader, although surely shallower scientific knowledge base. That is offset, in my view, by having to describe and analyze science in the broader public policy context, which is complex and nuanced in many instances.

Response #12: I definitely feel like writing has expanded by knowledge in science. There is absolutely no doubt about it. I know so much more than I ever did, and since this is the part of science I always enjoyed, it gives me a thrill.

Now, do I feel like I am using my training... yes, I was trained to read, synthesize, and understand primary research, and this knowledge is critical for my writing. If I was unable to understand the research by others, I would not be able to write the textbooks and study guides. What I do not use from my Ph. D is the actual bench research... taking what is known and devising the next experiment, performing that experiment, and interpreting these results. Can you be 50% scientist??

Response #13: I have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, and have been a science writer for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for 3 years. I write research news, publications for patients and families, and correspondence for senior officials, among other things. To answer your questions:
1) I don't think I could excel at my job without my scientific training. My job quite literally involves translating scientifc information for lay audiences - if I didnt' speak science, I wouldn't be an effective translator. But if you're asking whether I am personally satisfied with my position, the answer is no. I started here as an S&T policy fellow thinking that I would be doing a mixture of science communication and policy, but the policy has been lacking.

2) I have definitely abandoned the lab bench, but I wouldn’t say that I have left science behind. I feel more educated about general neuroscience and better informed about current neuroscience research than I ever did as an academic researcher.

Response #14: I work as a consultant to community organizations concerning the clean-up of contaminated sites, such as Superfund sites and closed military bases. My writing includes comments on technical reports and information pieces on topics of interest to the citizens concerning their site. These latter pieces may be about lead toxicity, endocrine disrupting chemicals, or the methods used to clean up contamination. I also write an editorial piece for my own web site.
Writing scientific material for a public audience is without a doubt one of the more rewarding developments in my professional life. My non-technical writing pieces include popular press letters and op-eds, white papers, position papers and information papers for communities. Much of the writing that goes to a more technical audience is also intended for public consumption, so I actually do little writing that is purely technical.
It’s not the adding on of the non-technical writing that has come with some down sides. Technical writing for journals can be cumbersome and tiring, and I still do write an occasional peer-reviewed paper or book chapter. And journal reviewers tend to be largely a pain in the butt. So, writing for other media and applications brings a way to keep both technical and non-technical writing in perspective. The losses have been in the change in work that accompanied the shift in writing. I no longer carry out lab/field research for which the principal outlet is peer-reviewed journals. There is nothing quite as satisfying as a lab experiment that goes well, and these are no longer in my work. That satisfying experience has been replaced by another.

Response #15: you feel it is a satisfactory way to use your scientific training?
Sort of. I use analytical skills and my background of science. But I'm not creating data points or designing experiments, which is what I was trained to do. This might bother some trained scientists, but it doesn't bother me. One of the things I liked most about my lab bench days was crunching through data, making graphs of it and trying to figure out what it meant. I do this now in my job as a science writer, except that my data points are quotes and other facts/figures I find and it's up to me to sift through it and come up with a story that people would want to spend their free time reading.

if you feel you've left science behind or if you feel it's led to a broadening of your scientific knowledge base

I think there are many ways to be a productive scientist. I was trained at a research 1 university where most grad students went on to be post docs. That's one way to be a productive scientist and contribute to society but generating new knowledge. But someone has to be out there to explain it in a way that's accessible to non-experts. Some scientists are able to find time to do this, through outreach at museums or giving layperson-friendly talks. But usually it's the job of a trained science communicator to distribute science to the public.

As for my career choice broadening my scientific base, it has! Before, when I was at the bench, my studies inevitably became more and more narrow as my research progressed. That's one of the reasons I left labwork. Now I get to cover a smattering of topics, and it's so much more interesting and fulfilling for me.

any other thoughts you may have
Just that scientists don't have to leave the bench in order to write for the general public. They can have blogs, give lectures, write op-eds in their local papers, etc. They should also be willing to talk to journalists about their work...there still seems to be a fear that the journalists will get it wrong (and sometimes they do!) or that they will appear to be tooting their own horn. Also, public affairs offices at universities can help scientists improve their communications skills such that journalists will write more accurately about the science.

Response #16: I trained as a PhD in biology and I have been working as a science writer now for almost 6 years. I write mostly long form narrative pieces.

I do feel like writing is a very satisfactory way to use my scientific training. I do not feel that I've left science behind at all. My knowledge base is much broader now (although less deep in my field of training). Having a PhD has made it easier to approach primary literature in diverse fields and gives me more credibility when interacting with scientists. I have also developed a keen sense for how to navigate the uneasiness felt by many scientists when talking to the media. I also help teach a communications workshop aimed at graduate students in science that focuses on writing for multiple audiences.

Response #17: Yes, I feel that science writing has been a satisfactory way for me to use my scientific training.

My particular position is very specialized and rather unusual. I am currently employed as a scientific writer/editor for a large cancer research laboratory at a non-profit research institute. In this position, I edit and help write scientific manuscripts and grant proposals. My scientific training is essential for this work--the level of editing and writing required simply cannot be done by a person who does not have a science background. Indeed, I'd say my doctorate and even postdoctoral training have been invaluable for this job. I read a lot of primary literature. Depending on the project I am working on, I have to be able to get quickly up to speed on a specific subfield, and I need to be able to synthesize the primary literature into coherent introduction and discussion sections of papers. I also very critically evaluate the primary data presented in papers and grants--basically, I'm just another trained scientific mind who can offer some
perspective. I participate in lab meetings and journal clubs--basically, I'm like a postdoc who doesn't do experiments (but does everything else).

I haven't met anyone else who has my exact same job, but I've recently come to know of others who have similar jobs. Through the science blogosphere, I've come to "meet" a few people who are Ph.D.-trained scientific writers/editors for departments or divisions at biomedical research institutes. These people go by different titles and have slightly different tasks (one person I know has the title of "research development facilitator"). Most are devoted primarily to helping their departments or institutes get grant funding--identifying grant sources and working with PIs to help write, shape, and oversee the entire grant application process. What we have in common is that we are specialized in science writing/communication for other scientists.

2) No, I don't feel that I've left science behind. I'm as deeply involved as ever--if not working at the laboratory bench means that I'm not a scientist, then none of the lab heads at my institute are scientists!