Spreading the Word

Science isn't just for scientists anymore.

Posted May 23, 2016

Post by Paul A. Schutz, University of Texas at San Antonio

In November 2015, I attended the first Psychology in the Public Interest Leadership Conference sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Public Interest Directorate and Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. The focus of the conference was on how we, as scholars, could improve how we share psychological research and policy to the wider populace.

I think it is safe to say that, generally, scientists are a bit reluctant to share their expertise and research outside of the world of academia. Personally, I have been quite successful at convincing myself to avoid sharing my research outside of my academic family. Over the years, I developed a wide array of protective self-statements such as:

  • “Serious scientists don’t talk to the media”
  • “Talking to the media seems overly self-promotional and that is just not me”
  • “This science is too complex to be watered down into the simple sound bytes necessary for the general public”
  • “I'm not sure how to talk to the media; I don’t want them to misquote me or trick me into saying something stupid”

During this conference, however, I was confronted with the following (somewhat shocking) reality: Between 1990 and 2001, the output of scientific papers increased 15%.  (So far, so good.) And yet, only 0.013-0.34% of those papers garnered attention from the mass media. Even more disconcerting for social scientists is that—if you remove the health/medicine papers—the percent drops to 0.001-0.005% (Suleski & Ibaraki, 2009).  Ouch! This basically means that social scientists are simply talking to each other, which is clearly a problem. 

If you take my own discipline of Educational Psychology, it is clear that, over time and as a collective, we have investigated a considerable number of issues related to teaching, learning, motivation, and emotion within educational contexts. As such, it is also clear that educational psychologists have a lot to offer when it comes to helping solve many educational problems (e.g., high stakes testing, teacher shortages, and student success—particularly in high-needs schools). Yet, as the previous statistics suggest, we are simply not getting our work out to the public. 

Here are five strategies that may help other researchers with their next opportunity to speak with the media:

  1. In your initial meeting with a journalist, ask questions to make sure you know who you are talking to, what the story is about, and how your interview will be used.
  2. Don’t feel like you need to be interviewed when you first talk to the person. Get the information from #1, set up a time to talk, and then do your preparation so you're ready for the interview.
  3. Try to limit the messages you want to convey to a small number of key points. In other words, determine the key messages or takeaways you want to provide your audience.
  4. Avoid jargon. Remember, outside of your academic group, no one knows what AERA, APA, or D15 are. Remember that you want to communicate to an audience which is not familiar with your jargon. One way to do this is to develop metaphors and analogies that people can relate to. This will help get your main points across in more memorable ways.
  5. Finally, during the interview, don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Stick to your key points and make silence your friend. In addition, don’t feel the need to try to answer questions outside of your area of expertise. Again, be prepared and stick to your key points.  

Overall, remember to have fun! I have provided some additional readings below: 

Anderman, E. M. (2011). Educational psychology in the twenty-first century: Challenges for our community. Educational Psychologist, 46, 185-196. 

Dean, C. (2012). Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public, Harvard University Press.

Olson, R. (2009). Don’t’ be such a scientist:  Talking substance in and age of style. Island Press: Washington DC.


Suleski, J., & Ibaraki, M. (2009). Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: A quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media. Public Understanding of Science.

This post and its companion piece (here) are part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President Nancy Perry. The series, centered around her presidential theme of "Bridging Theory and Practice Through Productive Partnerships," stems from her belief that educational psychology research has never been more relevant to practitioners' goals. Perry hopes the blog series will provoke critical and creative thinking about what needs to happen so that researcher and practitioner groups can work together collaboratively and productively. Those interested can learn more—and find links to the full series—here.

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