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Storytellers Who Know Science, Scientists Who Tell Stories

August 16, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on Storytellers Who Know Science, Scientists Who Tell Stories

Outdoor Stream LaboratorySo we began a ten day experiment yesterday, collaborating with our friends at the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics (NCED) to bring a scientific communication thread to their annual Summer Institute. NCED is a Science and Technology Center sponsored by the National Science Foundation to develop and share cutting edge knowledge of how the earth’s dynamic surface systems work.  The summer institute gathers bright young scientists from across the globe for an intensive series of lectures, experiments, mathematical modeling exercises, and shared scientific inquiry.

And, this year, a shared opportunity to participate in cutting edge scientific communication.  We read a lot of river-related science blogs and Twitter feeds here at River Life, and increasingly these “social media” platforms are conduits for dissemination of new knowledge, posing of advanced (or beginning level) questions, and reflections on the changing nature of scientific communications and, by extension, scientific community.

The word we’re hearing seems to be that we’re not going back to our mentors’ model any more.  Many of us trained as Ph.D. level scholars in the 20th century were brought up to be professors.  If we weren’t going to be a professor, we were pretty much on our own.  And if we were going to be a professor, that meant publishing our research in journals read only by specialists, attending conferences and giving papers only heard by specialists, and teaching students to be just like us.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.  It would take a long book to explain all of the changes that have come and are coming to higher education and the creation of knowledge, so let me just share a couple of points we made to the students yesterday:

  • These students, who are at the beginning of their careers, will not be able to pursue their work their whole career just talking to other specialists.  Whether it’s to secure a grant, explain the importance of a discovery, or build a collaboration, they’ll have to be clear as they explain their work to others.
  • They’ll have to talk to specialists in other scientific disciplines, which is a form of argument different than staying within their field.  They’ll have to talk to other academics in other very different fields (what our friend Kate Brauman refers to as “far field interdisciplinary” work).  And they will have to talk to non-academics, which requires yet another approach to communication.
  • Digital communication has broadened the “field of play” for learning and sharing in many, many ways; the time is fast approaching when academics will have to “get with it or get out.”
  • All of this change is part of the work we ought to be doing, indeed must do, in terms of developing a scientifically literate society.  That’s another whole set of discussions, though, right?

Pick up our threads on Twitter by following the hashtag #SIESD and look for the work as it gets collected at  And join in if you like!  But watch out–these are high-wattage scientists exploring complicated matters (How does a river really work, anyway?) and they’re pushing hard.  I heard about an hour of the introductory lecture yesterday and understood very little.

Gotta work on that “storyteller who understands science” part!

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