Science Wednesday: Translating Science into English

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Grace Camblos is a writer and photographer. Since 2006 she has worked as a student services contractor with the Office of Research and Development’s Science Communication Staff.

Photo of author, Grace CamblosIf an EPA scientist were to tell you, “we use Bayesian analysis to find the range of possible parameter values for our pharmacokinetic models”…would you know what she meant? What if you read in an EPA report that “exposure to residual oil fly ash increases airway reactivity and pulmonary eosinophils during allergic sensitization”?

If you have a background in science, those phrases might make perfect sense to you. But what about those of us without degrees in molecular biology or organic chemistry?

To a large chunk of people, the language of science seems full of mysterious jargon and phrases designed to make our eyes glaze over – or worse, that threaten to overwhelm us and make us feel stupid.

As a writer with EPA-ORD’s Science Communication Staff, it’s my job to translate the language of science into words that everyone can understand, regardless of their familiarity with science. I help write the articles, press releases, fact sheets and web copy that people might find as they browse EPA’s Web site.

Translating science into English can be challenging, to say the least. It’s a balancing act: my words need to be accurate enough to convey what the scientists really mean, but understandable enough to keep the readers interested. It does no one any good if I write about a fascinating, important study, but the reader gives up after the first two sentences.

My own lack of a science background actually has advantages in this situation. I have no problem asking questions when talking to scientists, because if I don’t understand, then there’s a fair chance that readers won’t either. (On the other hand, not having a science background does make getting through those dense scientific reports more difficult. But then, it’s my job to read through the science-ese so others don’t have to. Just think of me as the Cliffnotes version of EPA science.)

Communicating EPA’s science to the public is an important job. As a federal agency, we’re answerable to the public, and clarity of language goes a long way toward more transparency in government. Plus, as more people understand and support the work we do to protect the environment, more funding for environmental protection may come available, creating yet more chances to do good work.

Good science communication: It’s a win-win idea.

To read articles written by the Science Communication Staff, check out www.epa.gov/ord.

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