My daughter took to the podium to explain, in brief, her undergraduate thesis. Behind her stood the Oklahoma State University president, dean of the Honors College and dean of the College of Agriculture, Science and Natural Resources. In front of her was an auditorium filled with family and friends of fellow Honors College graduates.
It was a mixed group of intellects, ethnicities and socioeconomics. She stepped up to the microphone and said: “The title of my thesis is ‘Population biology analysis of Pythium cryptoirregulare of rhododendron nursery soils in Oregon.’” Then she did it. Something I told her when she started down this career path. She continued, “… which is a very long title for saying I’ve completed genetic analysis to determine the movement of soilborne plant pathogens.”
Just hours before, we watched as she stood in front of a different audience to defend that very thesis. It was a smaller group — just a few faculty and graduate students. When she gave the title of her thesis, there was no need for simplifying. She presented data, figures and terminology that would garner her attention in her field. And she did it effortlessly.
While I definitely cannot take any credit for her speaking ability or plant science knowledge, I did impart the wisdom “Know your audience.” Little did I know she would take it to heart, and in a period of three hours, change her word choices to educate the room.
Too often, scientists, well-versed in their fields, do not know how to communicate with the average American consumer, farmer or rancher. Their knowledge so vast, their passion so great — still, they often miss the mark on delivering their messages.
Agriculture is a science. There are detailed data, technical terminology and even scientific jargon. However, the average American does not understand, or maybe even care to comprehend.
Survey says, ‘Science-illiterate’
The 2016 Michigan Survey of Scientific Literacy found that during the last decade, 28% of American adults were considered scientifically literate. In it, John Miller, University of Michigan director of International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy Institute for Social Research, looked at civic scientific literacy in the U.S. for NASA. He contends that civic scientific literacy (CSL) is a measure of everyone’s ability to “make sense of, and use, information about science or technology to engage in a public discussion of policy choices involving science or technology.”
His survey did not measure technical skills in science, but the ability for a person to read and understand scientific materials — like those presented in the public media.
Right now, a little more than half of you are about to flip the page. That’s OK. You align with nearly half of American adults who really don’t care about new scientific discoveries or inventions, according to the study. However, Miller found 17% of American adults are attentive to science and technology policy issues, and follow these issues in the news. That percentage increased in recent years. It’s progress, but an uphill battle for those engaged in agriculture.
Americans need to understand how farmers, ranchers and researchers produce food, fiber and fuel. But it takes a different tactic.
For the next generation of scientists, gone is the sole reliance on data, terminology and jargon. Bring back the “five W’s and an H.”
People want to know who will benefit from your ag research. They want to know what you hope your scientific discovery offers the farmer, environment, industry and world. Consumers want specifics — when and where you started in your field, and why. They want to get to know the person behind the microscope. Ultimately, consumers want to know how your scientific discovery will affect their communities, finances and families. It is time to answer those complicated questions simply.
Universities are getting it
My husband and I thanked our daughter’s professors. We could see how she had grown both intellectually and professionally. But it takes more than book smarts to make it in the agriculture industry today.
That one day taught us that our next generation is learning to speak with consumers. These future ag scientists are carrying on scientific conversations, not lectures. They are being equipped to share even the most technical information in a manner that does not alarm, but educates consumers. And it all comes back to knowing your audience.
Whether it is at a brief graduation ceremony or a lengthy farm seminar, universities are training ag scientists to tone down their terminology. The next generation is working hard to engage Americans in the science that so fascinates them. Perhaps we should listen.