For three days this fall, some of the nation’s leading basic researchers were at the Stony Brook University campus for their annual conference and an introduction to science communication.
Nearly 50 researchers, all part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellows (VBFF) program, came from across the country to discuss their work and begin to explore principles and strategies of effective science communication from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
“It was a delight to host the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellows at Stony Brook this fall,” said Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis. “Their highly complex research, which in many cases opens up entirely new fields of study, has the power to change the world. With the engaging, empathy-based communication strategies developed by the Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Department of Defense’s top researchers have an important resource in sharing their transformative work with the world.”
“The Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellows visit was a tremendous opportunity to showcase our strengths at Stony Brook, and to foster future partnerships and collaborations between our faculty and the fellows,” said Stony Brook Provost Carl Lejuez. “It’s especially gratifying that we were chosen as a host location in large part because of our reputation as leaders in the field of science communication, thanks to the Alan Alda Center. I am pleased we had the opportunity to partner with this group and share the center’s tested and effective methods for science communication with broad audiences.”
The Department of Defense funds more research than any other federal agency, supporting work in a wide variety of fields including hypersonics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and quantum science. These fields were represented at the VBFF conference hosted by the Alda Center at Stony Brook and supported by the Office of Federal Relations at Stony Brook.
“The ability to clearly communicate highly technical matters is important for scientists at all levels of their career,” said Bindu Nair, director of basic research at the Department of Defense. “That is why the Basic Research Office and the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship Program opted to make scientific communication training an integral part of this year’s Vannevar Bush Fellowship program review. For us as a nation to maintain our lead in science and technology in a way that is fair and equitable for all, we need scientists and policymakers able to communicate and understand one another’s needs.”
VBFF fellows convene every year to discuss the latest developments in their work, network and find new ways to collaborate with each other, and to reflect on the impact of the fellowship on their careers and the successes of their research projects. This year, which is the first time the conference has been held in person since the pandemic began, the program expanded to include science communication training.
“It was evident that the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science made a big impression on this group of distinguished DoD investigators,” said Richard Reeder, SBU vice president for research and associate vice president for Brookhaven National Lab Affairs. “The conference allowed Stony Brook to showcase some of our leading research in quantum information science and also how the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has created a new paradigm for engaging society’s most important stakeholders.”
The Alda Center’s approach to science communication is a unique blend of improvisational theater techniques, social science research and communication strategies. Over the three-day conference, the fellows learned, guided by the center’s expert facilitators, to notice how an audience responded to a message and adjust accordingly, as well as how to begin to use communication tools like metaphors to help audiences connect and engage with complex science and research. The center, founded more than a decade ago by actor, author and activist Alan Alda, has trained more than 20,000 researchers from around the world to share the wonder and joy of their work with other researchers, policymakers, members of the media, students and others.
“It was an honor to share the Alda Center’s approach to science communication with the DoD’s VBFF scholars, and I am deeply grateful to Nicole Leavey, our associate director for strategic partnerships, and the team of faculty who worked with the VPFF fellows for all of their hard work and dedication in making this event such a tremendous success,” said Laura Lindenfeld, executive director of the Alan Alda Center and dean of the School of Communication and Journalism.
“In the past few years especially, the world has begun to realize the critical importance of effective science communication,” she said. “The pandemic, the climate crisis and many of our society’s other systemic problems will need to be solved with help from scientists and researchers, and effective communication must be part of the equation. Only with full engagement from all corners of society — including those who may traditionally have been excluded from the conversation — can we begin to work together to address the myriad problems that affect us all.”
The Alda Center and Office of Federal Relations will continue to work closely with DoD’s Office of Basic Research to explore research collaborations and mutually beneficial partnership opportunities.