Can We Talk? Citizens Dislike Jargon

Comedienne Joan Rivers's familiar line "Can we talk?" is now featured as one of the public-service announcements heard inside New York City taxicabs encouraging riders to buckle their seat belts. Rivers's "can we talk," "we're-in-this-together," "let's-get-down-to-business" approach quickly and effectively establishes rapport with the people she is addressing. Her approach is one the scientific community should consider as we strive to be heard by our fellow citizens and our elected representat

Mar 16, 1998
Mary Woolley

Comedienne Joan Rivers's familiar line "Can we talk?" is now featured as one of the public-service announcements heard inside New York City taxicabs encouraging riders to buckle their seat belts.

Rivers's "can we talk," "we're-in-this-together," "let's-get-down-to-business" approach quickly and effectively establishes rapport with the people she is addressing. Her approach is one the scientific community should consider as we strive to be heard by our fellow citizens and our elected representatives.

Can we talk about how to frame these conversations?

First, we must keep in mind that words matter. Over the years scientists have erected significant language barriers between disciplines, and even higher ones between scientists and nonscientists. Many nonscientists simply don't understand scientific jargon, so we should refrain from using it outside scientific contexts.

Surveys show that while nonscientists know NASA and FDA, they do not know other science-based federal agencies that sponsor research and especially don't know them by their initials, such as NIH, CDC, or NSF. We must remind ourselves to use the full names of these agencies when we speak outside our own group of colleagues, and we should be sure to explain the role of the agencies and that they are taxpayer-supported. To illustrate how necessary this is, consider that polls commissioned by Research!America have found that only about 4 percent of the public can accurately name the National Institutes of Health as the government agency that funds most of the medical research paid for by taxpayers in the United States. It is the responsibility of scientists funded by NIH, and of all supporters of medical research, to help change that.

Just as important, we should use words with positive connotations instead of words that may conjure up images that could backfire on our cause. For example, let's call research activities "research projects" rather than "research grants." "Grants" can mean a no-strings-attached gift or convey the negatives often associated with welfare.

Focus groups conducted by the National Cancer Institute and Research! America have found that the term "biomedical" is not necessarily effective with the public who, when they hear the term, think of laboratories and profit-making but not the human element that goes with the people-friendly term "medical" research.

We can learn, too, from the medical equipment industry, which deleted the term "nuclear" from "magnetic resonance imaging" technology. The prefix "bio" has some of the same baggage as "nuclear." "Biohazard" can be as life-threatening or frightening as "nuclear" weapons. Unless and until "bio" becomes more positive, "medical research" is the better term for most audiences.

Talking about clinical research offers a special challenge. People asked to participate in clinical research are not pleased to be called "subjects," and when clinical research is referred to as clinical "trials," it's no surprise that we trigger memories of misconduct. People who participate in clinical trials are volunteers and our partners in research. We can help ourselves by using terminology that honors the partnership in hope and discovery that takes place through the combined effort of the volunteer and researcher-not P.I., by the way. "Principal investigator" brings to mind someone like Magnum, P.I.; that is, someone who plays by his own rules-an image that isn't consistent with the taxpaying citizen's expectations of accountability. The term "researcher" is strong, respected, and appropriate; pride in working in the public's interest is the attitude to strike.

More on terminology: Studies by the Association of American Medical Colleges and Research!America have shown that people do not connect "academic medical centers" to medical education, care, and research. In fact, the term "academic medical centers" often leaves a general audience cold. Better than "academic medical centers" are the terms "teaching and research hospitals" and "universities."

Finally, we must consider the oft-stated goal to "educate the public." Unfortunately, this can mean persuading the public of the rightness of our point of view. True education, when it's effective, enables people to ask good questions. It's important that we take the time to listen to and answer questions citizens put to us, not just tell people what we decide they "need to know."

Rather than "public education," efforts to press our own case are rightly termed "advocacy." Advocacy is historically important and fully legitimate in a democracy. It is essential that we neither mislabel nor shy away from advocacy for science in the public's interest. Research!America's polls and grass-roots experience, along with that of voluntary health organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International, show that the public will join us in advocacy efforts because they overwhelmingly support research.

As recipients of taxpayer dollars, members of the scientific community have an obligation to be both accountable and accessible to the public, whom we should refrain from calling "laypeople." We should instead think of the public as "fellow citizens" and refer to them as such. We've all noticed the pomposity of people who speak only English but expect non-English speakers to understand them. We've also observed people who, continuing to insist on English, shout in an effort to be understood-how much more effective to make the effort to learn a few foreign phrases!

In the case of communication about scientific interests, it is more effective to explain ourselves to fellow citizens by employing user-friendly dialogue, rather than insisting on our own inaccessible terminology. We can readily assure citizens that we serve their interest if we demonstrate that we are available to answer their questions in a way that they can understand. We don't, after all, have to learn a new language to advance our cause with the public, and we don't have to shout. Let's just talk.

Mary Woolley is president of Alexandria, Va.-based Research!America, a research advocacy organization. E-mail: researcham@aol.com.