Writing, Talking to the Public about Science

The Impact of Science: sharing knowledge that affects lives and landscapes

Writing, Talking to the Public about Science

Schrage shares tips, scientific understanding

Interview with Scott Schrage Abby Steffen

Scott Schrage knows how to write. He can use the right words, in the right order, for the people who likely will read what he writes. He is skilled with punctuation and with the Associated Press Stylebook. But his job as science writer and editor with University Communication at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln requires more than wordsmithing and style. It requires him to do background homework on scientific topics, on the interviews with university scientists and reviewing – lots and lots of reviewing – to be sure he has relayed the facts correctly. 

“Science communicators are translators. They take what is often complex, highly technical information and present it in a form that someone who has little to no background in a scientific discipline can understand,” Schrage said. “I think science communicators can really help provide insight into why research is so vital,” he added.


“Science is misunderstood in a lot of ways, but when you take a step back and realize how complicated and technical it can be, you get an appreciation for why it’s misunderstood,” Schrage said. As a communicator, he tries to give people a better understanding of the science.

“It requires a lot of thought and care, and communicators are trained to provide that and invest in doing that to work toward a broader public understanding of science,” he explained.

It is Schrage’s job to write stories about results of scientific research at the university so the public can understand its importance. He usually learns about it from a contact with a scientist or through peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals. That’s when Schrage begins his own research, learning about the “what,” “so what” and “now what” of the topic. 

He looks up terms, practices and processes he may not understand. He takes notes. He learns as much as he can, then begins writing interview questions for a face-to-face meeting with the scientist. 

During the interview, Schrage asks the scientist questions about the scientific processes and the significance of the discoveries. One of his stories in early 2018 focused on the negative effect of a popular insecticide on the queen bumble bee. The headline asked “Could an insecticide topple queen bumble bees?”

The “so what,” or significance, of that story centered around the insecticide’s effect on the queen bumble bee, including her death or incapacitation; the latter resulting in a delay of the queen’s pollination of fruits, vegetables and nuts. The story appeared in University Communication’s Pocket Science, a 200-word-limit glimpse of research conducted by university scientists and engineers. The university scientist Schrage interviewed, Judy Wu-Smart, is a university Extension and research entomologist.

“I think it’s easy to underestimate or overlook how important research is to everyday life – how it has shaped or improved our agriculture, our technology, our health, our economy – pretty much anything that you can imagine,” Schrage said. 

Schrage records each interview, then transcribes it himself, writing out the scientist’s responses to his questions. Through the transcription process, Schrage is able to catch details and vocal nuances he might have overlooked during the interview. When the process of transcribing is complete, he begins to write.


Scientists want people to know about their research; writers and editors want to be sure the story is easy to understand for a public audience. The challenge, he said, is writing to find that “sweet spot” that provides enough information, but not too much.

Schrage begins the writing process by reviewing his own homework and the transcription of the interview to be sure he understands the material. He underlines, highlights and thinks about the audiences that could read the story. Then, he writes a general outline of what he believes should be included in the story, in the order the audience would want to read it. 

And finally, the wordsmithing that catches the audience’s attention, first with a headline:

‘Pain in the gut: Microbe betrays neighbors to trigger IBD

Study offers clue to inflammatory bowel diseases’

The wordsmithing continues in the first paragraph of the story, in which the topic and significance is explained and facts are attributed to the university scientist:

“A colon-dwelling bacterium may trigger inflammatory bowel diseases by raising the immune system’s alarm against its peaceful bacterial community, reports a recent study led by the University of  Nebraska–Lincoln.” 

That story, featuring Amanda Ramer-Tait, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, includes explanations of terms and processes involved in the complex science Ramer-Tait studies. In this case, Ramer-Tait’s research could change the future for people afflicted with inflammatory bowel disease. 

It’s Schrage’s responsibility to explain it to the world.


Schrage works with a team of University Communication experts that includes photographers and videographers, web and social media specialists and communications strategists. They work together to be sure stories about the university have the photos, videos, social media and web presence necessary to reach a variety of audiences.

Everything University Communication produces goes to Nebraska Today, which is the news portal of the university and arrives via email several times a week. A good amount of material also goes out to the local media.

“If we feel like we’re onto something big, we’ll use electronic services that other science communicators regularly check; those are repositories for daily science stories, many of which are coming from universities like ours,” Schrage explained. Sometimes, Schrage and his colleagues assess a story and target it to a regional writer if they believe it could be of interest.

“Ultimately, it’s important to remind people that scientists try to remain impartial in their work, even if that’s not always completely possible. We would ask the same of the people who are approaching research for the first time: try to come at this with an open mind. Communication doesn’t work if it’s a one-way street,” Schrage said.

Three Tips for Writing About Science

By Scott Schrage

Tip 1: Respect and serve your audience 

  Respect your audience’s time by promptly getting to the point. 

  Explain what’s new and why it’s important, applicable or, at the very least, interesting. 

  Respect your audience’s attention by avoiding jargon unless absolutely necessary. 

  Write to inform the audience, above all else. Don’t try to impress the reader with how much you know.

  Respect your audience’s intelligence by delving into specifics that are essential to understanding a concept, a discovery, or the novelty or magnitude of a finding. 

Tip 2: Catch the audience’s attention early

  Make a strong and interesting first impression with a story. 

  Style matters. If you don’t have it, readers might abandon the story before they’ve consumed the substance. 

  Consider leading with an especially surprising or awe-inspiring fact, dropping the reader into the middle of a compelling situation, or connecting the research to an emerging news trend or cultural phenomenon. Pair that with a solid headline and some dynamic imagery. 

  Use your imagination. Try to be creative, then decide what approach best suits your story. It is well worth the time that’s needed to get it right.

Tip 3: Connect the unfamiliar with the familiar

  Research is usually complex, and many people aren’t familiar with scientific concepts. Draw parallels between an unfamiliar concept and a familiar one. Metaphors, analogies and other figurative approaches can help audiences grasp something they might otherwise struggle to understand. It also can help reduce the intimidation many people experience when encountering research from the natural sciences.