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One or Two Aspects of Communication in the Scientific Environment

by Charles Zalabak*

In desperation, I begin this essay with the hope that once the writing is finished, I will again be able to eat and drink without ulcerative tendencies, that I will be able to breathe without palpitations. To free myself of the anxiety over getting it done prompts me to action. I am sure that by doing so, those who are awaiting the completion will no longer point an accusing finger and I will recover a modicum of self-respect.† After all, I feel that a few of my experiences may be noted, with benefit, by a student interested in communication in the technical world.

Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics (communication requirement: one semester of public speaking) I went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a research scientist. When the NACA became a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA), I was more concerned with product development. The working conditions were very good by my evaluations. Resources were adequate (a researcher will almost always claim a better job could be done with more money and what it can buy in simulations, manpower, supplies, and time), the environment was stimulating (exciting fields of inquiry, capable and generally compatible people), and a review process by which the research projects were maintained was consistent with needs.

To examine the process of communication as I experienced it at NASA, let me describe several assignments and leave the details of communication analysis to the student and to those better qualified than I.

As a new employee just out of school, one might expect to do menial tasks, of course. One of my first assignments in the research environment was the plotting of curves, whereby it is possible to deduce a mathematical relationship or to check how closely the experimental data fit the theoretical curve. Today, of course, electronic curve plotters eliminate the tedium, except as it applies to the programmer. Whether an assignment is individually completed or performed with sophisticated technology, the scientist is concerned with determining what are meaningful data. What should be accepted and what should be rejected? How accurate are the standards we use for judgment? I have frequently asked myself the questions: What about data that were rejected on the basis of such situations as instrument error or nonstable set point? Were some of those data also meaningful? If so, what was the impact of discarding those data?

As in most research environments, we were constrained in design by a variety of limitations. I was assigned to create mechanical designs to convey concepts, materials, and dimensions for needed equipment such as a furnace capable of high-temperature materials testing. Did the need for limitations provide equipment (and resulting data) that could be misused by persons not fully understanding the limitations?

Report writing—formal communication—was the culmination of a research effort. After progress and findings had been reviewed by supervisors and agreement had been obtained that the results merited distribution, a draft report was prepared for supervisor approval. Corrections made, the report was submitted to an editorial committee that included a checker (responsible for accuracy of formulas, calculations, and references), a co-worker or two (not directly on the project), and a person attempting to ensure the report would be comprehensible to technical persons not in the same specialty area (described as a mean intelligence). The author of the report could expect sessions with the editorial committee to be lengthy and somewhat combative. Following additional corrections/approvals, the grammarians made their recommendations. Final corrections, duplication, distribution, and cataloguing were the responsibilities of the author(s). Communicating the results was part of the research assignment.

The communication examples, questions, and concerns I have described were basic to most of my assignments. Additionally, technical reviews as presenter or participant were common at various levels in both group and interpersonal settings. Again, the responsibility to examine and critique was as much a part of the job as actual manipulation of data.

Throughout, I found an honest, ethical relationship pervasive among people, a sincere attempt to present findings with full disclosure of the limitations. And yet, we have witnessed a space-mission failure resulting in death. And digressing to other areas of science, we remember Nobel felt compelled to fund a commemoration of peace efforts because his discovery of dynamite was so devastating. We note the pollution of air, water, and land due to accidents arising from nuclear fission and the potential pollution from fission residues that require disposal. Disposal of toxins from manufacturing processes poses increasing problems, as does the use of toxins by inadequately informed people. The list can be continued. However, the point is that in each case the initial product was to improve the lot of the human race—from dynamite as a source of concentrated energy to pesticides that improve agricultural productivity and facilitate distribution.

So what about communication (besides the fact that a lack of communication contributed to the above-cited problems)? I see work being done to advance the discipline. As cause and effect become better defined, the potential for abuses grows. Can the student of communication help establish a course of action to forestall these abuses, as well as guide the technical community so they may better convey the totality of information?

1. How does Zalabak see human communication influencing scientific progress?

2. Can you identify other examples of scientific problems related to human communication?

3. How should scientists be trained in human communication?

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