Tuning In Scientists so the Public Will Not Tune Out

In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson shares how scientists can better share research with the public.

As scientists we are trained to “sell” our research to other scientists. We submit our proposals to a peer review panel, our papers to peer reviewers and we present those papers to each other at conferences. We write and speak for and to ourselves. Unfortunately, learning how to communicate with other scientists doesn’t necessarily prepare you to share your science with broader audiences like the public. Science often gets criticized for being too esoteric or not connected enough to taxpayers that fund the research. I think this is because the scientists have not learned how to communicate with those audiences.

It is worth the effort to take the time to become a better general communicator. I find that scientists who are good at speaking with non-scientists are also skilled at communicating with scientists in disciplines other than their own. This is because they are able to focus on more than their own discipline and think about the connections between the things everybody knows. Making the effort to communicate can actually make you a more innovative scientist!

International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson communicating the impacts of microgravity research at the 2012 ISS Symposium. (ESA)

Challenging yourself to think about what you’ve done and explain it to your grandmother or to your neighbor can be a powerful intellectual driver. If you can do that, and explain why the research matters, the conversation transitions from a lecture to an inspirational experience. It helps you become a better scientist when you make that connection.

One challenge we have when we attempt to communicate science to the public is the funny view that people have about scientists. I think most people picture Albert Einstein, the mad scientist stereotype or, heaven forbid, the crazy female scientist. Real scientists are innovative and not nearly as dramatic or as inscrutable as in the movies. Because of the stereotypes, people expect you to be hard to understand. The audience may dismiss the information, saying they don’t get that “science stuff” and just stop listening.

Albert Einstein, 1935. (Credit: Sophie Delar/Wikipedia)

Thankfully there are some great models out there on how to reach the public and how to get science information to them. For instance, NPR Science Friday covers various science disciplines accurately, and yet it’s understandable. There are some great science media outlets that are communicating research in inspiring ways. Nature magazine has great, publically accessible, weekly science reporting. Smithsonian and Discovery also connect with people that are interested in science.

Not only do we need to get people interested in what we’re doing and why it matters to us, but we also need to articulate why our work should matter to them. Making that connection is often hard for scientists. During our development as scientists our colleagues have trained us—sometimes painfully—not to overstate our conclusions. We are taught to say things with the caveat “we don’t know for sure” or “we might need to do more research to find out.” This automatically makes what we say boring, and it reduces the impact. It also seems so self-serving to a non-scientist because they get the impression that our main purpose is to justify more research.

Unfortunately, we often add these caveats unnecessarily by instinct. We don’t want anyone to accuse us of saying anything beyond our data. There’s a tension between explaining things in a dynamic way and overstating the case for findings or benefits of a study.

Thumbing through an airline magazine the other day, I saw several ads for universities that read, “We’re making breakthroughs for your health.” They’re happy and at ease making those sorts of statements; we at NASA would not be comfortable stating that without a lot of proof in the fine print. We have a lot of watchdogs that are ready to question our claims, even if what we are trying to do is be good communicators about our accomplishments.

The International Space Station Benefits for Humanity publication and associated website are part of the communications tools NASA uses to share benefits from space station research with humanity. (NASA)

The other thing to consider is that the International Space Station took a significant investment, and, much like the investments made in science in other areas, our public doesn’t understand how it helps their daily lives. If you ask people how the National Science Foundation helps their daily life, they can’t tell you. It’s the same if you ask about the space station; most can’t tell you how they benefit from our research. As scientists, we all have this same communication problem. With the space station, we’re trying to help connect the dots between the research we’re doing and how this can help make people’s lives better.

There are challenges to this. It takes time for those applications to develop; yet powerful applications have been made: cleaning the air in a daycare so kids aren’t as likely to transfer illness and research on astronaut bone loss are just two examples. The results from our bone loss studies are surprising researchers on Earth. There’s a lot of synergy, and there are some things we can study better on the space station in a microgravity environment. The results from space coupled with those from experiments on Earth benefit humanity in many ways.

It’s up to us, the scientists, to continue to challenge ourselves to share this work with the public in new and dynamic ways, to communicate the importance of this research and its outcomes. We can’t promise the application of a specific result, but we can promise our work will help our nation stay on the competitive edge. We shouldn’t oversell—but we also shouldn’t sell our science short.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Waste Not, Want Not: Translating What We Learn About Living On Space Station For Life On Earth

Intoday’s entry, guest blogger Jeff Smith, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on thesustainable aspects of the International Space Station with the readers of ALab Aloft, pointing out how these carefully planned efforts in space can leadto greener living on Earth.

The International Space Station is an amazing place. It’sa research lab, an observatory, a complex machine and a home. But, it’s notjust any home or workplace; the station is the most remote and mostenvironmentally conscious home or office ever created. Every bit of materials,supplies and consumables must be brought from Earth at a cost of thousands ofdollars per pound. All the on-board power comes from renewable solar energy.Anything that can be re-used, re-purposed or recycled gets to stay; everythingelse gets tabulated, quantified, packed and either returned to Earth, or packedout aboard Progress or another space vehicle designated to burn up over thePacific Ocean. 

In space, it costs a lot to bring in supplies and packout the waste. It is also extremely important to always make sure there areenough supplies and enough power to keep everything running smoothly 24 hours aday, 7 days a week for a crew (or family) of six. There is no grocery store,pharmacy or hardware shop in space. If it’s not aboard, you can’t just go outand pick it up at the corner store. You can’t even open the windows to get moreair. If you run out, that’s it. 

As a result of these limitations, the space station hasbecome an incredible example of sustainability and sustainable practicesanywhere on Earth, or beyond. The technologies and methods being developed andused by the crew can directly translate to improved sustainability for homesand offices here on Earth. 

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman, Expedition 26flight engineer, is pictured with a stowage container and its contents in theHarmony node of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS026E011334)

Supplies are stored in a number of locations andcarefully tracked so they can be brought out when required. Since the crew is living,working, eating, sleeping, exercising and breathing—just as you and I would doon Earth—those supplies get used pretty quickly. All that packaging, food andother consumables become waste. The waste is also carefully measured andstored.

Some materials and samples are returned to Earth; but themajority is stowed aboard Progress or other space vehicles and allowed to burnup in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. At first this might not seem likea “sustainable” practice, but the space station must track everything thatcomes in or goes out. With the high cost of boosting supplies into space, stationcrews and ground-support personnel take many steps to reduce, re-use andrecycle everything they can.

The unpiloted ISS Progress 41 supply vehicle departs fromthe International Space Station April 22, 2011. Filled with trash and discardeditems, Progress 41 remained in orbit a safe distance from the station forengineering tests before being commanded by flight controllers to descend to adestructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
(NASA Image ISS027E015444)

Air and water are currently recycled aboard the spacestation, but NASA has plans to improve these systems and do even more torecycle waste. These new and advanced space-based life support systemsinclude air revitalization, water recovery, and waste management, as well ascontrol systems for many other important factors, such as temperature, humidityand cabin pressure.

To reduce the high cost of lifting resources into orbit,space life support systems must be extremely small and lightweight. Since thereis little power to spare in space, they must also be very energy efficient.Space life support systems also need to be extraordinarily reliable andlow-maintenance, as malfunctions can lead to mission failure and repairs inspace are time consuming and demanding on the crew. Additionally, these systemscan increase self-sufficiency by regenerating vital resources from wastematerials.

These requirements for sustainable systems inspace—small, lightweight, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, and low waste—arethe same as those that can make systems work even better here on Earth. Thus,the capabilities developed to enable human exploration inspace can be potentially applied on Earth to make cleaner, more sustainableliving possible here today. NASA’s technical excellence and engineeringexpertise offer critical resources for jump-starting sustainable systemstechnologies for use in private and commercial sectors. With a strongcommitment to public/private partnerships and commercial technology transfer,NASA knowledge and technologies can help make sustainable living practical andaffordable for everyone.

NASA advanced life support systems, air (left), water(middle) and solid waste (right) processing units for life support can providefuture space habitats with small, low-power, extremely efficient recyclingsystems. These space systems can have Earth-based applications to improvesustainability where we live and work. 
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Today, some of the sustainable technologies developed forspace are being brought down to Earth in the Sustainability Base at NASA AmesResearch Center. This 50,000 square foot office building is one of thecleanest, greenest facilities ever constructed. 

NASA’s Sustainability Base is unlike any other governmentbuilding every created. It incorporates space technologies and know-how, bringingInternational Space Station and other NASA energy/sustainability practices downto Earth in one of the greenest, most efficient buildings ever.
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Construction of the Sustainability Base will be completedsoon, showing that NASA really does translate advanced sustainable technologiesfrom space down to Earth, affecting our homes and workplaces for a cleanergreener tomorrow. Other ongoing activities, outlined in the NASA Ames Greenspace Website, include sustainable practices,clean energy technology development and green aviation research. Thesetechnologies and methods, whether used aboard station or to accomplish otherNASA missions, can make a big contribution to improve sustainability andenvironmentally friendly practices here on Earth.   

Jeff Smith, Ph.D.
(Credit: NASA)

JeffSmith, Ph.D., is Chief of the Space Biosciences Research Branch at NASA’s AmesResearch Center. The principal mission of the Branch is to advance spaceexploration by achieving new scientific discoveries and technologicaldevelopments in the biosciences. Smith has worked for NASA since 1996.