Rutgers Collaborative Science Communication Initiative Aims to Position Rutgers as a Leader in Science Communication

Open to all, the Initiative’s goal is to create a network for anyone at Rutgers interested in science communication research, teaching, outreach, professional practice, and training.

By Carol Peters

The Initiative’s goal is to create a network for anyone at Rutgers interested in science communication research, teaching, outreach, professional practice, and training. 

Open to all, the Initiative’s goal is to create a network for anyone at Rutgers interested in science communication research, teaching, outreach, professional practice, and training.

Communicators trained to explain science clearly and effectively in order to educate, inform, improve lives, and create change for the better on a global scale have arguably never been more needed than they are now. 

As humanity faces historic crises stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, privacy concerns arising from the use of new technologies and data collection, storage, and sharing, and many other critical issues related to science and technology, it has become ever more urgent for universities to cultivate communicators who can explain science.

To address the need to teach science communication and train practitioners among Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, and form a broad network of people interested in science communication at the university, a group of Rutgers University-New Brunswick faculty members have launched the Science Communication Initiative

Founded and led by, in alphabetic order, Professor and Chair of the Rutgers Department of Human Ecology William K. Hallman, #EOAS faculty member and Teaching Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean of Community Engagement (SEBS), in the Department of Human Ecology Mary Nucci, and Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Nicholas M. Ponzio, the Initiative aims to advance the study and practice of science communication; train existing and emerging professionals in its practice; and create a synergistic community of faculty, students, staff, and postgraduate trainees able to communicate about science with diverse publics, including policy makers.

Rutgers faculty in the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) who are affiliated with the Rutgers Science Communication Initiative include Lisa Auermuller, Debashish Bhattacharya, Anthony J. Broccoli, Randi Chmielewski, Anna Dulencin, Jeanne Herb, Henry John-Alder, EOAS Director Robert Kopp, Lauren Neitzke Adamo, and Malin Pinsky.

Kopp, a climate scientist, geobiologist, and climate policy scholar, is the co-author of the book “Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus.” He is also a lead author of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2017 Climate Science Special Report, and he was a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report. 

Kopp’s role in advancing science communication through the Initiative is largely through his work as co-director of the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience initiative (C2R2), which is, according to Kopp, “a training program which brings graduate students in the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, and urban planning together with coastal stakeholders to tackle the challenges that climate change poses to the world’s coastlines.”

Committed to the Initiative’s aim to train and foster a network of science communicators at Rutgers and beyond, Kopp said, “Science is a critical element of so many issues of public concern — from public health and climate change to technological innovation and economic development. Science communications, in its myriad of forms — whether informal education, science journalism, or dialogues with communities impacted by scientific issues – is a critical part of both civic education and the practice of science. The Rutgers Science Communication Initiative can thus play an important role in enhancing capacity for science communication in Rutgers’ students, postdocs, faculty and staff, and help Rutgers better fulfill its land-grant mission of serving as a college for democracy.”

Institute member Itzhak Yanovitzky, a faculty member in the Department of Communication at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, who is also a member of the National Academies of Sciences’ Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication, said, “Effective science communication is clearly in the forefront of efforts to address a great range of complex national and global challenges, from pandemics to climate change. Ensuring that the best available science is informing sound policy and practice is particularly challenging in the face of ideological polarization, alternative truths, and a constant stream of misinformation. How to communicate effectively with and about science is ever so critical, and members of the Rutgers community, including many individuals at SC&I, are making great strides in advancing science communication research, practice, and training. The Rutgers Science Communication Initiative aims to synergize science communication-related efforts across the university with the goal of leveraging and further building our community’s capacity to support these efforts and become a hub of science communication innovations.”       

Nucci, one of the founders of the Initiative, earned her Ph.D. from the Rutgers School of Communication and Information in media studies with a focus on science communication. A trained biologist who began her career as a scientist, she has also worked in the communications department at a biotech company, as a freelance science journalist, and she directed the Health Floor at Liberty Science Center. Her work has been published in Scientific American, among other publications.

Nucci said membership in the Initiative is open to anyone who is interested in science communication, even if they don’t do science or science communication, and said the Initiative is also connected very strongly to the land grant mission at Rutgers. “We owe it to New Jersey residents to give back and provide great science content, information, access, and knowledge. We feel very strongly that the Initiative should be spearheading this effort at Rutgers. Our state is home to many biotech and pharmaceutical companies, so this is the ideal place to do this work.”

The Initiative has established a virtual speaker/colloquia series for fall 2020 and spring 2021. Yanovitzky said while the Initiative originally planned to host an in-person event to launch the series, it was cancelled due to COVID-19 (although he noted they still plan to have an in-person event in the future, when it is possible). 

“With science and communication being at the forefront of efforts to stop the pandemic,” Yanovitzky said, “through our series we have an opportunity to engage the university community with the Initiative and invite others to join. The idea is to create a virtual forum to allow folks across the university to connect together as a community focused on the science, teaching/training, and practice of science communication. To start, we believe it is a good idea for folks to get to know one another and science communication-relevant work at Rutgers.”

Nucci explained she can trace the origins of the Science Communication Initiative back to a decade ago when she was a Ph.D. student at SC&I, and first met Professor William Hallman when she worked as his Graduate Assistant at the Rutgers Food Policy Institute. Not long after, the professor who had been teaching science communication courses in the Department of Human Ecology left, and she was offered the position. She took over the courses, and quickly realized they weren’t designed to teach students how to do science communication, rather they focused on the theory of science communication. 

She said while she and Hallman had long decried the lack of science communication education and training at Rutgers, everything changed one night when she was at an event at Eagleton and there met Ponzio. They discussed their mutual interest in promoting and teaching science communication, and Nucci then introduced him to Hallman. Once they began to collaborate, Nucci said, they realized they shared many synergies, and they each also had very specific interests pertaining to the advancement of science communication at Rutgers. “I am very interested in undergraduate education and outreach, Nick is very interested in training faculty, staff, and graduate students, and Bill is very interested in graduate education. We all feel very strongly about the areas we are interested in and in promoting the Science Communication Initiative.”

Many scientists and journalists already understand the issues and problems surrounding science communication, Nucci said, so “through this initiative we are trying to move the needle a little bit. We’d like to change the discussion from focusing on what the problems are to doing something about them. Jean-Luc Picard’s “Make it So” is my mantra for the initiative. 

“Through the Science Communication Initiative, we have amassed an amazing group of people who are talented, smart, and committed. It is such a pleasure to do this work with a broad network of colleagues across the entire university who are so engaged and want to do good work in order to improve the world,” Nucci said.