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Alan Alda Initiates Program At UVM To Teach Scientists To Better Communicate

WAMC/Pat Bradley

Actor Alan Alda may be best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the TV series M*A*S*H or as Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing.  But his current work is focused on helping train scientists to more effectively communicate with the public. He was on the University of Vermont campus Monday to help launch a new institute to further that goal.

Alan Alda has been nominated for and received numerous awards over the course of his career, including Emmys, Tonys, Oscars and Directors Guild awards to name a few.

His appearance on the Burlington campus to deliver the Dan and Carol Burack President’s Distinguished Lecture Series focused on a lifelong passion: science. Alda notes that a just-issued report from the PEW Research Center finds the understanding and acceptance of science by the public has diminished. He says that’s dangerous and it’s crucial to train scientists to be better able to communicate what they are doing.  “It’s an ambitious idea. I realize that. But I hope what will happen is that when you study science you take it for granted that you’re going to be studying communication at the same time so that the science isn’t encapsulated in your brain and you can’t get it out to other people. It’s really important that the public be excited by science, that funders understand it. Nobody would fund anything they didn’t understand. If somebody comes to your door and says I need a thousand dollars for this charity,  you don’t hand over the money until you find out what’s going on. And if it can’t be communicated with clarity and accuracy, not dumbed down but with clarity and accuracy, then science will benefit and the whole culture will benefit.”

Alda’s talk initiates UVM’s affiliation with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where he is a visiting professor. Elizabeth Bass, Director of the Center, says the ultimate goal is to change the way scientists are educated.  “We’re hoping to embed it in universities around the country. Many scientists have told us that it’s good for them when you can talk to more different people in a way they can understand you actually get ideas back. They’ll ask such a basic question you may not have thought of it, but it was like woah I should actually look at that! Several scientists have told us of that kind of experience they’ve felt helped them  be better scientists.”

UVM is the second university to form an affiliated institute, following Dartmouth University. It will be coordinated through the university’s statewide EPSCoR—or Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research—project. Program Director Dr. Judith Van Houten explains that they contacted the Alda Institute to create the affiliation.  “We were unhappy that we were being asked to dumb down our research in order to communicate it and we did not believe that was appropriate. So when Alan Alda said it’s important to communicate what you’re doing without dumbing it down we knew that we had the right plan to work with them. Faculty want to communicate. They don’t want to live in a little ivory tower or a shell. And it disappoints them when they can’t get their point across.”

Alda, who has had a lifelong interest in the sciences, became active in promoting science communication when he hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. He found that the people he interviewed could be very engaging when prompted to be more relatable.  “We do something that’s aimed at changing the way they approach the whole question of communication. They don’t just think about using different words. It’s not mechanical like that. They think about who they’re talking to while they’re talking to them to find out if they’re getting what they’re saying. This is not something you can ask somebody to do. You’ve got to put them through exercises, games, experiences that help them become accustomed to reading the mind of the person they’re talking to.  Science is so fascinating and scientists are so passionate. I want some of that passion to show when they’re communicating it.”

The Alda Center is holding day-long workshops today for STEM and social sciences faculty. Annual workshops are planned in other fields including the humanities. UVM and the Alda Center are also exploring the possibility of semester-long classes for graduate students.

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