The Art of Communication

Written by Sarah Treadwell – BMSIS Science Communication and Education Affiliate.

Shock rippled through the space community this past February 6th when it was announced that JPL would be letting go 530 of its employees. Of course, first my heart goes out to people going through such difficult circumstances. However, upon hearing this news, it gave me reminiscent feelings of a reaction to a similar shocking announcement; occurring just months before I set sail as an on-board communicator on the ocean core drilling research ship the JOIDES Resolution. In that case, the shocking announcement was that the NSF was pulling the last stretch of the ship’s funding short.


While sailing on my expedition, many scientists aboard voiced their frustrations to me of the politics of funding to programs such as ocean core drilling. As someone whose work often is heavily focused on space science, I was grilled several times as to how NASA was allocated such a large budget compared to other science fields. Then as now, this is never an easy answer for me, nor an easy position to be in as some sort of a representative to explain why this is.

I was also confronted on the ship by others who sailed with me with the oh too familiar complaint: Why are we spending so much money on space when there are so many problems on Earth? Once again, this is never an easy answer for me, nor really a fair one for me to simply answer. This is like comparing apples to oranges, and it also encompasses multiple complex story lines, history, and politics. 

Of course, the frustrations are understandable… in the example of the JOIDES Resolution, the ship retiring early will leave a large gaping hole in ocean core drilling research, and severely limit new research opportunities for both established and early career researchers. And NASA does look to have an impressive budget compared to their budget. In 2022, the JOIDES Resolution cost approximately 72 million dollars a year to operate, and an additional 48 million dollars were funded to IODP to support its operations. Comparatively, NASA requested a budget of 24.7 billion for the fiscal year of 2022 from the United States budget.

The JOIDES Resolution – Sarah Treadwell

However, when you look at NASA’s budget, (which by the way accounts for only 0.3% of the U.S. spending budget), there is a dramatic difference in how much money they are allocated compared to the hey-day of the Apollo programs. And on top of that, a huge portion of the budget is spent on human spaceflight initiatives with a dramatic very little on educational initiatives.  (See below this chart showing the dip in funding taking into account inflation, created by the Planetary Society and how the budget is split within the agency).  

As a science communicator who has now worked in many various programs with equally various science objectives that often suffer from the political climate, this recent JPL announcement left me wondering once again, “How do we as communicators do better”? 

My educational focus is communication, which I specifically apply to the field of science communication. And no matter where I go, I believe there continues to be a gap of understanding between the general public, and more impactfully, people in decision making power to that of scientists and their research. And I think the gap often lies on us, the communicators, who are crucial individuals serving as a medium. 

I truly believe that even a communicator can get complacent in the “curse of knowledge”… meaning that we often assume our audience has knowledge about certain topics and even more crucially, that they care. We fail to deliver information in ways that make them feel involved, or important. People wish to feel valued, and in the case of many NASA missions, these are large, expensive and very long duration investments. Viewing congress as investors, we, the science communicators, still struggle to show what the value is in the long haul to… us. All of us. As humans. 

Earthrise – Apollo 8 – NASA.

While I don’t have an easy solution for this problem either, what I do know is that when we lead by heart, it resonates. Science is not cold and static, in fact quite the opposite. The stories are vibrant, the people messy and real, the results ever changing over time. Understanding our world and our place in this vast cosmic ocean is the greatest story of humankind. I hope to continue to learn the art of great story-telling through science communication, and hope even more so that by constantly sharpening my skills, that I can help us avoid the conundrum’s that we see at congress, paid for by loss of talent at JPL.

Sarah is a professional science communicator who goes by Space Case Sarah. She is currently pursuing a PhD in communications at the University of North Dakota. There she works as the research coordinator and communicator for the Arctek lab. She is a 2023/2024 NASA SCoPE grant winner, as well as a 2023/2024 Astronomy in Chile Ambassador. Sarah produces “Ask an Astrobiologist” with SAGANet, is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and is located in Rockford, IL.