Communicators trained to explain science clearly and effectively in order to educate, inform, improve lives, and create change for the better on a global scale have arguably never been more needed than they are now.
As humanity faces historic crises stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, privacy concerns arising from the use of new technologies and data collection, storage, and sharing, and many other critical issues related to science and technology, it has become ever more urgent for universities to cultivate communicators who can explain science.
To address the need to teach science communication and train practitioners among Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, and form a broad network of people interested in science communication at the university, a group of Rutgers University-New Brunswick faculty members have launched the Science Communication Initiative.
Founded and led by, in alphabetic order, two faculty members in the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences: Professor and Chair of the Department of Human Ecology, William K. Hallman, SC&I alumna and Teaching Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean, Community Engagement (SEBS) in the Department of Human Ecology Mary Nucci Ph.D. ’10; and Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Nicholas M. Ponzio, the Initiative aims to advance the study and practice of science communication; train existing and emerging professionals in its practice; and create a synergistic community of faculty, students, staff and postgraduate trainees able to communicate about science with diverse publics, including policy makers.
Affiliated faculty from SC&I include Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Communication Mark Aakhus, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Lauren Feldman, and Professor of Communication Itzhak Yanovitzky.
“Effective science communication is clearly in the forefront of efforts to address a great range of complex national and global challenges, from pandemics to climate change,” said Yanovitzky, who is also a member of the National Academies of Sciences’ Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication. “Ensuring that the best available science is informing sound policy and practice is particularly challenging in the face of ideological polarization, alternative truths, and a constant stream of misinformation. How to communicate effectively with and about science is ever so critical, and members of the Rutgers community, including many individuals at SC&I, are making great strides in advancing science communication research, practice, and training. The Rutgers Science Communication Initiative aims to synergize science communication-related efforts across the university with the goal of leveraging and further building our community’s capacity to support these efforts and become a hub of science communication innovations.”
Nucci, one of the founders of the initiative, earned her Ph.D. from SC&I in media studies with a focus on science communication. A trained biologist who began her career as a scientist, she has also worked in the communications department at a biotech company, as a freelance science journalist, and she directed the Health Floor at Liberty Science Center. Her work has been published in Scientific American, among other publications.
Membership in the Initiative is open to anyone who is interested in science communication, Nucci said, even if they don’t do science or science communication, and she said the Initiative is also connected very strongly to the land grant mission at Rutgers. “We owe it to New Jersey residents to give back and provide great science content, information, access, and knowledge. We feel very strongly that the Initiative should be spearheading this effort at Rutgers. Our state is home to many biotech and pharmaceutical companies, so this is the ideal place to do this work.”
The Initiative has established a virtual speaker/colloquia series for fall 2020 and spring 2021, and SC&I is a sponsor. Yanovitzky said while the Initiative originally planned to host an in-person event to launch the series, it was cancelled due to COVID-19 (although he noted they still plan to have an in-person event in the future, when it is possible).
“With science and communication being at the forefront of efforts to stop the pandemic,” Yanovitzky said, “through our series we have an opportunity to engage the university community with the Initiative and invite others to join. The idea is to create a virtual forum to allow people across the university to connect together as a community focused on the science, teaching/training, and practice of science communication. To start, we believe it is a good idea for people to get to know one another and science communication-relevant work at Rutgers.”
Nucci explained she can trace the origins of the Science Communication Initiative back to a decade ago when she was a Ph.D. student at SC&I, and first met Professor William Hallman when she worked as his Graduate Assistant at the Rutgers Food Policy Institute. Not long after, the professor who had been teaching science communication courses in the Department of Human Ecology left, and she was offered the position. She took over the courses, and quickly realized they weren’t designed to teach students how to do science communication, rather they focused on the theory of science communication.
She said while she and Hallman had long decried the lack of science communication education and training at Rutgers, everything changed one night when she was at an event at Eagleton and there met Ponzio. They discussed their mutual interest in promoting and teaching science communication, and Nucci then introduced him to Hallman. Once they began to collaborate, Nucci said, they realized they shared many synergies, and they each also had very specific interests pertaining to the advancement of science communication at Rutgers. “I am very interested in undergraduate education and outreach, Nick is very interested in training faculty, staff, and graduate students, and Bill is very interested in graduate education. We all feel very strongly about the areas we are interested in and in promoting the Science Communication Initiative.”
Many scientists and journalists already understand the issues and problems surrounding science communication, Nucci said, so “through this initiative we are trying to move the needle a little bit. We’d like to change the discussion from focusing on what the problems are to doing something about them. Jean-Luc Picard’s “Make it So” is my mantra for the initiative.
“Through the Science Communication Initiative, we have amassed an amazing group of people who are talented, smart, and committed. It is such a pleasure to do this work with a broad network of colleagues across the entire university who are so engaged and want to do good work in order to improve the world,” Nucci said.