Renowned science communicator says, 'Let’s speak up!'

Published: November 6 2014


For scientists to better communicate with the public, they’ll have to use more than their brains. They’ll need their hearts, souls and voices as well, says Alison Van Eenennaam, who will present the fall 2014 York lecture.

Van Eenennaam, a Cooperative Extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, will give a talk called “GMO Technology: What do the facts say?” Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. at Emerson Alumni Hall. The talk is free and open to the public.

Van Eenennaam says her talk is keyed to her upcoming music video on scientific communication, which is a parody of the viral Internet video “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis.

She believes that many scientists’ discomfort with public speaking has led to what she terms a “false balance” – where non-experts are able to suggest there is controversy on some topics among scientists, when in fact, there is not.

Climate change, vaccines, genetically modified organisms and pasteurized dairy products are among the topics where a false balance exists, she said.

Most scientists don’t like controversy or enjoy the spotlight, but speaking out about such topics has become an imperative, she said.

“If we don’t, there is not going to be any science-based policy,” Van Eenennaam said. “We are losing scientific literacy at a great rate. I’m very much in favor of speaking up about science and what we’re doing and making sure science has a voice at the table.”

But reaching the public means letting down your guard, she said.

“As scientists, we’re very evidence-based people, not emotional. It kind of goes against our nature to be touchy-feely with audiences, it’s just not our thing. And that’s fine at a scientific society presentation, but in talking to a public audience, that’s not fine,” she said. “You haven’t shown them that you’re human. You need to establish that before you get rocking with your science.”

Van Eenennaam has given more than 250 presentations to audiences in 17 states and seven countries and has served on several national committees, including the USDA National Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture.

Last month, she received the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology during the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

The presentation is part of the York Lecture Series. Its speakers have achieved outstanding international distinction in agriculture or a related discipline. The scholar is encouraged to spend time on the UF campus, participating in lectures, workshops and seminars and may establish a continuing relationship with UF as a visiting professor.

E.T. York, a former vice president for agricultural affairs at UF, established the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the university in 1964. Information about the lecture series and a link for streaming the event can be found at