Book Review: Nancy Baron’s “Escape from the Ivory Tower”

EarthzineOriginal, Reviews

In August, I spent a couple of weeks brushing shoulders with scientists eminent in their fields.  The need for more effective communication with the public was a constant refrain.

Nancy Baron’s “Escape from the Ivory Tower” is a clever, clear guide for how scientists can increase the public clout of their research while remaining active in the field they care about. Image Credit: Island Press.

Nancy Baron’s “Escape from the Ivory Tower” is a clever, clear guide for how scientists can increase the public clout of their research while remaining active in the field they care about. Image Credit: Island Press. 

“My wife told me I should be more like Neil De Grasse Tyson,” one scientist told me, raising his eyebrows. “What people don’t realize is that must be his full time career -communication. How much time do you think he actually spends in the lab?” This particular event was a social evening and dialogue between climate scientists and nature educators, and I had asked one climatologist how to improve communication with a skeptical public.  He was no novice to communication.  He has been interviewed by major papers, kept a blog, and is now branching out into the medium of Twitter.

Yet, the way this scientist talked about communication, it was a potential burden to scientists rather than an opportunity. His point was a valid one; many scientists are inhibited in their outreach by a concern that public communication is an all-or-nothing commitment that will pull them off the front line of research.  As the scientist spoke, a point occurred to me that surely there must be a middle ground between a career of pure communication and pure research. It turns out there is, and it even comes with an instruction manual. Nancy Baron’s “Escape from the Ivory Tower” is a clever, clear guide for how scientists can increase the public clout of their research while remaining active in the field they care about.

When it comes to communicating science, Nancy Baron has been on both sides of the trenches.  She began her career as a Canadian national parks biologist and later shifted into the fields of science education and journalism. As a result, her book is both sympathetic to scientists leery of being misrepresented and to deadline-harried journalists tired of guarded answers.

Although geared toward scientists, “Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter”offers advice useful to anyone involved in sharing science at any level. In a how-to manual that reads as easily as a non-fiction novel, Baron carefully lays out a case for why science communication matters and how to effectively get yourself heard while remaining true to your data.  As Baron writes, “If you decide you want to inform those outside your research arena and help guide public discourse, you will need to learn a new set of skills.”

“Escape from the Ivory Tower” provides an outline for those skills. Baron’s approach to her material is straightforward and logic-based.  The take-away messages I drew from her book can be summed up in five points:

• Effective communication matters
• Know your audience
• Know the driving reason and desired consequences of your research
• Prepare ahead of time
• Be willing to be passionate about issues that matter to you.

Touching on these concepts from a variety of perspectives, “Escape from the Ivory Tower” is broken into chapters that outline the importance of informing the public about science, the perspectives on each side of an interview or briefing session, and tips for how to communicate a scientific message in a way that will attract interest in the non-scientific community.

Within each chapter, subtopics, such as “Practical Tips for the Interview,” are headlined in bold. Ideas within each subtopic are designated by italicized headings.  Finally, each chapter finishes with a short, succinct “Bottom Line,” where the key concept of the chapter is summarized in two or three sentences. The result is a readable and easy-to-navigate book that can be read cover-to-cover or delved into at specific points of interest.

In addition to its navigational ease, Baron’s writes accessibly and uses stories to show real-world applications of the practices she describes. She includes anecdotes from scientists who have personally dealt with the issues of communication, and for each key concept, she includes a box containing first-person advice from interviews with scientists, journalists, and public representatives.

Baron also offers tools for describing research in meaningful and accessible terms.  A mouse icon indicates where detailed examples can be found on the book’s website. One of the most useful tools provided in the book itself is the “message box,” a way of organizing key points in research and paring it down to five essential components: the issue on hand, problems, benefits, solutions, and relevance. The “message box” is a useful concept, so useful that I wish Baron had included more of such examples in her book. “Escape from the Ivory Tower” does a thorough job of laying out the need for effective communication and explaining whom to address and how.  I feel, however, that many scientists need more examples and a greater number of explicit rules showing how to simplify their language and consolidate their ideas into a form that its comprehensible outside of the scientific community. The approaches outlined in the “How-To Toolkit” portion of the book offered excellent advice. I only wish that this section had formed an even more substantial portion of the book.

Personal wish-list aside, I found “Escape from the Ivory Tower” to be an interesting and informative read. I highly recommend the book as a starting point for any scientist interested in engaging the public. Baron’s insight into both ends of scientific communication offers a helpful starting point for anyone interested in more effective communication with the public or with scientists. All we need now is for Baron to write a book for the other side of the coin: members of the public who want to engage scientists.