Scientists can be difficult to understand, even for lawyers.
The William Mitchell College of Law has decided to tackle the problem with a weeklong Expert Witness Training Academy. The program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is in its third year and drew in almost two dozen scientists eager to learn how to communicate their research effectively.
“I think the reason scientists have a hard time communicating is because most of our time is spent within our own sphere of scientists,” said Maura Hahnenberger, associate instructor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, who came to the academy. “So most of our communication that we do is within this realm of other scientists, but it’s really important to be able to go beyond that.”
In a mock courtroom Tuesday, scientists practiced direct and cross examinations, playing the roles of the witness, defense and prosecuting attorneys.
“I think it’s really important for them to communicate to us so we can understand what the problems are, what their research shows,” said John Sonsteng, academy co-director.
Throughout the week, they will engage in mock media interviews, legislative hearings, depositions, arbitration and a jury trial. They’re not being trained to be lawyers, Sonsteng said, but to understand how the system works and what’s expected of them as expert witnesses.
The testimony is recorded on video, then the scientists are reviewed and critiqued on their communication — from their speech to their posture. Sonsteng corrected one witness on his slumped posture and an attorney on his leading questions and crossed legs.
If they’re going to testify before Congress, talk to the media or testify in court, scientists must be understandable, participants agree.
Erika Wise, assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina, said even if she’s never called as a witness, the academy can help her communicate to any audience. “There’s no reason to do your work if you can’t communicate it to other people.”
Lydia Coutré • 612-673-4654
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