Skip to content

Teaching scientists to talk

Nancy Baron is a scientist who went to the dark side. She became a journalist. “Scientists are afraid of talking to journalists because they don’t know how to give it so anyone else can get it,” she said.

Nancy Baron is a scientist who went to the dark side.

She became a journalist.

“Scientists are afraid of talking to journalists because they don’t know how to give it so anyone else can get it,” she said.

Baron hopes to change this.

“I want scientists to come out of their ivory tower and engage with government and with society at large to inform society’s decision making,” she said.

“They need to talk to media to get their voice out to the wider world.”

But in Canada, this is getting tougher.

Since 2008, Environment Canada scientists have been ordered to refer all media queries to Ottawa.

In a marked change from previous governments, even basic demands for information, once easily fielded by department spokespeople, are now vetted by the Prime Minister’s office.

Baron refers to it as “muzzlegate.”

It’s not like this is the U.S., said Baron, who is the lead communications trainer for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University.

As citizens, scientists can share their opinions, she said.

That’s not the case in Canada.

In fact, two Environment Canada scientists, who were scheduled to meet with the News in early December to discuss studies they’d conducted on contaminants in the North, were forced to cancel after word came from Ottawa that they were not allowed to do the one-on-one media interview.

“Hopefully the Canadian government will get to the point where they will allow scientists to speak as citizens,” said Baron.

In the interim, she is focusing on teaching scientists how to communicate.

Back when she was a biologist, working at Banff National Park, Baron couldn’t help noticing that scientists spent most of their time in a bubble.

“I increasingly felt scientists were just talking to themselves,” she said.

So Baron quit and took a job at the Vancouver Aquarium as its head of education.

“I wanted a job that would allow me to engage with the public,” she said.

Baron soon found herself moonlighting as a journalist, writing for local publications including the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight.

Next thing she knew, Baron was winning national writing awards and publishing articles in Canadian Geographic, Equinox and Saturday Night.

But it wasn’t until she met Jane Lubchenco, the founder of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, that Baron realized her calling.

“Jane asked me to help her bridge the gap between science and society,” said Baron.

Since then, Baron has been hosting workshop and lectures, teaching scientists how to drop the academic jargon and get to the meat of the matter.

“Scientists want to learn how to become more effective communicators,” she said. “They want their discoveries to transform society.”

Baron is in Whitehorse this week hosting a public lecture, the Risks and Rewards of Science Communication, on March 27 at the Beringia Centre. The lecture starts at 7:30 p.m.

There’s a lot of public confusion over hot button issues like climate change, endangered species and fisheries, she said.

Rather than finding consensus among scientists – something Baron can do within seconds – there is a strategy to create doubt, she said.

Baron refers to this as the “rent-a-scientist movement.”

“Corporations, or those whose oxen would be gored by increased regulation have hired scientists to help,” she said.

But many of these hired guns are actually consultants who end up being hired by one industry after another, said Baron, mentioning the tobacco industry and big oil.

That’s why Baron wants to help academic scientists reach a bigger audience. “Because they receive funding without a mandate attached,” she said.

Baron is also hosting an all-day workshop on March 28 at Yukon College with local scientists and researchers.

In past workshops, Baron has asked participants if they want their science to have an impact on society. “And 100 per cent of them stand up,” she said.

Young scientists are especially hungry for this, said Baron. “But even the old silver hairs are catching on.”

Recently, two University of Washington scientists discovered Alaska’s Bristol Bay sockeye salmon population was the healthiest in the world.

The reason is diversity of habitats. The fish occupy so many different habitats that if one is compromised, it doesn’t impact the overall population.

To make these academic findings more accessible, the scientists compared it to a balanced portfolio on the stock market, said Baron.

“Just like a balanced portfolio, it’s diversity of habitats that allow species to survive, rather than putting all your eggs in one basket,” she said.

This way the science makes sense to people, said Baron.

There are big issues facing us, she added. “And scientists need to communicate with the public to address these issues.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at