Everyone involved in the health research process fully understands the important role animals play in the development of new and improved treatments and therapies. We also recognize there are various kinds of research. Some studies are designed to test new medications. Others expand our scientific knowledge and highlight promising new pathways for fighting disease.
But despite our extensive knowledge and experience with this topic, discussing our work with those outside the field can be daunting. We’ve all attended social gatherings and struggled to decide what to say when asked “What do you do for a living?”
In many cases, we respond with a generic (AKA safe) answer. “I’m a health researcher at company X,” or “I work in a lab at university Y.” And while we feel guilty for not sharing more, we’re also wary of getting into a heated discussion. Here’s the thing: The approach of providing a general response is convenient. But, it has not helped our cause.
According to recent polling data provided by Gallup, public support for animal-based studies continues to remain a serious concern. Data gathered in May 2021 shows that a little more than half of adults in the U.S. (52 percent) say they believe the use of animals in scientific research is morally acceptable. According to that same poll, 44 percent said they do not think it is acceptable. The most recent data from the Pew Research Center came in 2018 (notably, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak). That data suggested only 47 percent of Americans support animal research with 52 percent against it.
There is a silver lining buried within Pew’s polling data however. Those with an increased understanding of science or those who have accomplished higher education levels are more likely to support animal studies. That being the case, it is our shared responsibility as members of the scientific community to increase public understanding of science.
But how does one begin? How can you develop an elevator speech for discussing what you do for a living? Here are a few tips.
Consider Your Audience
Before discussing your work with someone outside the field, consider what you know about the person across from you. Are they somewhat familiar with health science or the research process? Have they been personally impacted by serious illness? Do you know if they likely have biases for or against research? If you work for a well-known company, how has news coverage influenced their opinions of the organization?
One good way to start is with a question. “I work for company X. Are you familiar with what we do?” Then, let their answer inform what you say next. Provide background as needed and correct or acknowledge any challenging information they share.
Also, consider whether there are parallels that you can draw between the listener’s occupation or experiences and the science.
Start with the Goal
Once you have a better feeling for your listener’s background, explain in general terms what your lab is studying and why. Tell your story using the “inverted pyramid,” the same style adopted by journalists. Start with a general headline, then provide more details. This approach is a good one because it gives the listener an opportunity right away to understand the overall goal of your work. You can then go on to explain how animals are required to seek answers to the important scientific questions being asked. Using the inverted pyramid structure to explain what you do also allows you to gauge the response of your listener and address questions or concerns in a logical order.
Like any other complex field, the science community loves acronyms. But remember, shorthand speak means nothing to the general public. Even common acronyms like “NIH” might require some background information. “Are you familiar with the National Institutes of Health? They are the federal agency that determines what research should be publicly funded.”
In addition to avoiding acronyms, be sure to define medical terms and when in doubt, ask questions. “Do you know about…?”
Define Basic vs. Applied Science if Needed
It’s also important to remember that many Americans do not understand the research process. For instance, some might believe health research and product safety testing are the same thing. This is why it is important to define your research if needed. If you work in a basic science lab studying weight regulation, explain it. “We are trying to learn the mechanism in the brain that triggers feelings of hunger in order to assist those combatting life-threatening weight issues. The findings in our lab might one-day be used to develop new medications.”
Remember, It’s a Conversation, Not a Speech
One common error is to forget that you are taking part in a conversation and not delivering a monologue. Don’t go too fast. Pause and allow the person you are speaking with to ask questions. Good communicators realize it’s not a race to get your message out. Instead, it’s an exchange of thoughts, ideas, questions and answers.
It’s OK to Share Feelings
For decades, those involved in animal studies were advised to keep their emotions to themselves. We’ve heard research opponents make emotional arguments. We then, responded with logic. The problem with that approach is that for many, animal studies are an emotional topic. And this is not news to those who work in labs. You recognize the importance of the questions being asked and the need for animal research. At the same time, you understand there is a tradeoff. It’s completely natural and human to acknowledge this. Too often, members of the public incorrectly assume researchers do not care about animals. Therefore, we must be willing to share our conflicted feelings when we have them. We must also highlight there are systems in place to ensure the benefits of research projects outweigh any negative impacts on animals.
Don’t Be Afraid of Tough Questions
Some members of the research community may be completely comfortable talking about what they do. It’s the questions they fear. Do animals die as part of your research? How can you do that? Do you feel guilty?
These kinds of questions are actually quite rare. However, if they come up, acknowledge what was asked and then respond. Also, if a loaded word or phrase is used, avoid repeating it. “Good question. Some animals need to be humanely euthanized as part of our work. Here’s why….” It’s completely OK to say things like “I would not do this if I did not recognize the need.”
Learn from Your Interactions…and Practice
Finally, learn from your previous discussions. Was there a phrase or word that generated a negative reaction? Why? Did I go too fast or make incorrect assumptions about the person I was speaking with? Think about what parts of the discussion seemed to resonate. Also, recognize that you are not trying to “convert” the listener. Instead, you are trying to help them understand what you do and why.
Finally, practice. Prepare with your partner, family members or even with your kids. By far, youngsters ask the toughest questions. If you can respond confidently to questions from an unfiltered ten-year-old, you can probably talk to just about anybody.
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