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Effective Communication between Scientists and Non-scientists

Effective communication skills are pivotal to success in science. From maximizing productivity at work through efficient teamwork and collaboration to preventing the spread of misinformation during global pandemics like Covid19, the importance of strong communication skills cannot be emphasized enough. However, scientists often struggle to communicate their work clearly for various reasons. This article will describe best practices and frameworks for communicating effectively for professional scientists and non-scientists in commercial scientific enterprises.

By Sundeep Teki in Guides

Introduction

Effective communication skills are pivotal to success in science. From maximizing productivity at work through efficient teamwork and collaboration to preventing the spread of misinformation during global pandemics like Covid19, the importance of strong communication skills cannot be emphasized enough.

However, scientists often struggle to communicate their work clearly for various reasons. Firstly, most academic institutes do not prioritize training scientists in essential soft skills like communication. With negligible organizational or departmental training and little to no feedback from professors and peers, scientists fail to fully appreciate the real-world importance and consequences of poor communication skills. The long scientific training period in the academic ivory tower is spent conversing with fellow scientists, with minimal interaction with non-technical professionals and the general public. Thus, the lingua franca among scientists is predominantly interspersed with jargon, leading to poor communication with non-scientists.

This article will describe best practices and frameworks for professional scientists and non-scientists in commercial scientific enterprises to communicate effectively.

How should scientists speak with non-scientists?

Industry

This section describes how professional scientists in industries like biotech and pharma can communicate better with cross-functional stakeholders from non-technical teams like sales, marketing, legal, business, product, finance, accounting, etc.

Cross-functional collaboration

In industry, scientists are often embedded in self-contained business or product teams with different roles. Taking a biotech product to market like a new drug, which has a long development cycle, involves extensive collaboration between specialists from multiple domains: research, quality assurance, legal and compliance, project management, risk and safety, vendor and supplier management, sales, marketing, logistics, and distribution, to name a few.

Scientists are involved from the beginning of the process. However, scientists are often guilty of focusing solely on R&D without acutely considering how the science and technology underlying the product or business is operationalized by cross-functional teams and delivered to the market. Scientists are often less aware of the practical challenges of taking a drug prototype to the patient, such as long timelines due to multiple steps like risk management, safety reviews, regulatory approvals, coordination with pharmaceutical and logistics companies, and bureaucratic hurdles with governments and international bodies. This is a vital mistake in collaborative industry environments and often leads to poor job experience for scientists and their non-scientist peers and managers.

The image below shows several communication challenges at the different stages of the drug development process that hinder successful commercialization. Although the various specialists share a common objective, each domain expert speaks a different “language” influenced by their respective training and fails to translate their opinions and concerns into a common language that all can understand. This comes in the way of optimal decision-making resulting in projects that stall even before demonstrating clinical efficacy. In an industry with a 90% drug development failure rate, poor communication and collaboration can be very expensive, to the tune of USD 1.3 billion per drug. The right culture is crucial to ensure successful outcomes, as advocated by AstraZeneca after a thorough review of their drug development pipeline.

Communication hurdles in science

Communication hurdles during the drug development process (source)

A recent real-world example pertains to the development of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine by multiple teams at the University of Oxford. Although the vaccine was developed within two weeks by February 2020, it was not until 30 December 2020 that the vaccine was finally approved for use in the UK, and it is even to date not authorized for use in the US. In particular, the AstraZeneca vaccine was subject to misinformation, fake news, and fear-mongering, which led to vaccine hesitancy and a lack of public trust. This led Drs. Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, co-developers of the vaccine, to author ‘Vaxxers,’ with the primary motivation to allay fears and reassure the general public about its safety and efficacy by explaining the science and process of creating the vaccine.

Stakeholder management

Another critical aspect of working with cross-functional teams involves managing key stakeholders to ensure a successful outcome for the project. Stakeholders often come from diverse non-scientific backgrounds, making working with them more challenging for scientists.

The main challenge in effective stakeholder management is understanding the professional goals, metrics, and KPIs that drive each stakeholder. For instance, a product manager might focus on metrics like cost improvement over time, risk mitigation, or timelines; a finance leader may be focused on revenue; a compliance manager may be focused on metrics that capture safety and legal aspects. Understanding each cross-functional stakeholder’s north star can help scientists navigate the intricacies of stakeholder management.

Effective stakeholder management involves numerous aspects:

Identifying stakeholders

The first step is to identify the stakeholders that are critical to the success of the scientific product and understand their motivations and priorities. Successful stakeholder management starts by mapping your stakeholders across several dimensions, including:

  • Core responsibilities and scope
  • Influence and power
  • Interests
  • Expertise

A stakeholder mapping can help identify the most important stakeholders during each phase of the product development lifecycle. This helps develop stakeholder strategies to balance the diverse perspectives of each stakeholder, prioritize stakeholders during the product lifecycle, manage any inevitable conflicts, and build unique communication methods for each.

Aligning stakeholders

Conflicting priorities among stakeholders are common and need to be resolved delicately. Achieving multi-stakeholder alignment for complex projects requires carefully planned discussions and negotiations to assess the lay of the land with each stakeholder and preempt potential conflicts. Focused group meetings that prioritize key points of disagreement or conflicting priorities can help achieve alignment and avoid conflicts.

Engaging stakeholders

After getting all the stakeholders aligned, it is useful to build a communication strategy to share project updates regularly. The communication plan must be tailored to each stakeholder. For example, individual contributors might need a high-touch approach, while project coordinators and administrators might just want periodic updates and high-level presentations.

During the project's execution phase, continuous engagement and clear communication with the stakeholders are essential to keep everyone on the same page. Stakeholders may be involved in multiple biotech projects in parallel, and your project may not be their sole focus or priority.

We have previously written about several modes of communication and project management apart from one-on-one meetings. At a minimum, it is beneficial to maintain a project status board detailing the progress of each milestone, metric, team, and timeline, especially to serve as a single source of truth, especially if some teams are working remotely.

Entrepreneurship

This section will discuss how aspiring startup founders with a scientific background should communicate and “sell” the company's mission to varied stakeholders from investors, employees, vendors, potential hires, and so on.

Scientists with domain expertise and an entrepreneurial mindset are increasingly opting to build deep-tech startups soon after graduating from academia. From Genentech to Moderna and CRISPR Therapeutics to BioNTech, there is no shortage of successful biotech companies founded by scientists. However, building a commercially successful and viable biotech startup requires diverse skills with a much stronger need for excellent communication skills.

Scientist founders need to have exceptional communication and sales skills to pitch the company to raise venture capital, write scientific grants, forge business partnerships with other companies, retain customers, attract talented employees with their vision for the company, give media interviews, and shape a mission-oriented organizational culture. Scientist-founders must communicate particularly well to bridge the gap between scientific research and commercialization.

How should non-scientists speak with scientists?

In this section, we will consider the viewpoint of non-scientists and how they can communicate more effectively with scientists. Non-scientists are typically more focused on product, business, sales, marketing, and related aspects of commercializing scientific research.

The stakes for effective communication between scientists and managers are very high. This is best highlighted by NASA’s missions, which involve a diverse set of experts, both scientific and non-scientific, similar to the highly complex and multi-year projects described in the previous section. NASA’s failures on projects like the Columbia mission have been attributed to deficiencies in communication and insular company culture. Namely, management not heeding the scientists' and engineers’ warnings. These communication failures are expertly documented in a post-hoc report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board –

"Over time, a pattern of ineffective communication has resulted, leaving risks improperly defined, problems unreported, and concerns unexpressed," the report said. "The question is, why?" (source)

Unfortunately, this state of affairs rings true even today in high-stakes and complex scientific enterprises. Here are some recommended tips that follow from such catastrophic mishaps and failures in workplace communication:

  • Be direct in your communication, and do not beat around the bush.
  • Encourage every stakeholder's input and weigh every expert’s input regardless of their domain, age, or tenure in the organization.
  • Implement clear communication and decision-making channels from each contributor, team manager, and leadership.
  • Use modern tools and software to enable the teams to communicate effectively.

How can non-scientists better engage scientists?

Non-scientist stakeholders' work largely focuses on business metrics, product roadmaps, customer research, project management, etc. These are critical focus areas that non-scientists need to update and communicate clearly to their scientist colleagues.

In industry, it is common to observe scientist colleagues not actively participating in discussions focused on business topics and switch off until their work is the topic of discussion. It is crucial to engage scientists as they are on the front lines of core product development and in a better position to understand and flag potential roadblocks in manufacturing, commercialization, and logistics based on prior experience.

Many product-related issues and bugs that surface later in the development cycle can be caught and addressed if there is more proactive communication between scientific and non-scientific teams. Scientists are generally trained to be conservative, focusing on accuracy and reliability, which can conflict with a manager’s ambitious goals for time-to-market or revenue targets. In these situations, managers should allow scientists to voice their concerns, not be afraid to dive deeper, coordinate with other cross-functional stakeholders, and take a balanced decision integrating every stakeholder’s views. In the long term, cultivating an open and progressive culture that encourages debates and tough discussions reaps enormous benefits whereby no business-critical concern is left unvoiced. A transparent and meritocratic culture promotes greater cooperation and understanding among different teams striving towards the same goals.

Conclusion

We discussed why scientists often struggle with effective communication with other scientists and non-scientist stakeholders when working in industry or building their own company.

We addressed how scientists should approach communication with non-scientist colleagues and how to collaborate with them. We also discussed effective communication strategies from the perspective of non-scientists speaking to scientists.

In the long run, having strong communication and soft skills confers greater career durability than simply having scientific and technical skills. Understanding this and upskilling accordingly can empower scientists to transition and perform well in industry.

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