Joe Palca visits UCSF. Photo credit Nicholas Weiler, UCSF

Talking science with NPR correspondent

Monday, September 11, 2017

Want to be a better science communicator? Simplify your message, and get over the impulse to go into excruciating detail, says Joe Palca, a highly effective science correspondent at National Public Radio (NPR).

Palca has been engaging in science communication since he graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1982. He has worked in television, print publication, and radio, making his experience and advice invaluable.

On Aug. 29, UCSF trainees wishing to hone their science communication skills gathered in Genentech Hall to hear Palca chat with UCSF’s science podcasting group, Carry The One Radio.

According to Palca, many scientists have a false perception that there is an inverse correlation between simplicity and accuracy. He insists that science stories can indeed be told in engaging, brief ways while also being factual.

Effective science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson are performers. They engage their audience by integrating interesting stories about science into larger landscapes of interesting things.

Not all people seek out scientific stories, so science communicators must find topics that draw their audience in.

Are you looking to start communicating your science to others? Palca emphasizes that you must know your audience. Start with a topic and medium that makes you happy and is accessible for you.

Avoid what Palca calls “spinach journalism.” Don’t simply tell a story because you think someone needs to hear it or that it will be good for him or her.

Additionally, Palca believes that the most effective science communicators are those still actively engaged with science.

“Build something that makes you smile,” Palca said, and share a story that “makes people scratch their head.”

Palca’s main focus is Joe’s Big Idea, his NPR podcast that explores how ideas become inventions. He’s also recently formed Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, which aims to connect science communicators to one another.

Members of Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, called FOJBIs (pronounced “foe-JOE-bees”), can use the platform to network, help each other out, and organize a grassroots bottom-up approach to sharing the value of science.

Right now, there are more than 500 FOJBIs in the United States, but Palca wants to grow this network to more than 10,000.

Do you want to become a FOJBI? Email with the subject “CMI” (Count me in) to be added to the FOJBI listserv and receive a welcome packet with more information.

You can also keep up with Joe’s Big Idea on Facebook.