William Mitchell creates academy to train scientists as expert witnesses

William Mitchell College of Law has been awarded a federal grant from the National Science Foundation to create the Expert Witness Advocacy Training Academy, a  first-of-its kind program to help scientists more clearly communicate and demonstrate the quality and integrity of their often-complex work to people who may be unfamiliar with scientific data and methodology. Participating scientists, often called to serve as expert witnesses in court cases or to provide testimony in congressional hearings, will learn to communicate their work to diverse audiences, including juries, legal counsel, lawmakers, and the media.

The $289,000 grant will initially fund two one-week workshops, which will operate on a learn-by-doing basis. Scientists will participate in mock court proceedings, congressional hearings, and media interviews. They will receive coaching and feedback on their testimony. In addition, ethical issues and other factors associated with serving as an expert witness will be presented.

“Communicating complex ideas to a non-specialist audience is one of the tools that the current generation of scientists needs in its professional toolbox given the proliferation of easily available information.  But information is not the same as knowledge,” said David Verardo, director of the NSF Paleoclimate Program, which funded the project. “William Mitchell’s emphasis on practical learning and record of educational innovation makes it a natural partner with scientists to help break down barriers of communication between people.”

The workshops will be taught by William Mitchell professors, including John Sonsteng, who is one of the nation’s top advocacy educators and the program’s developer.

“The opportunity for scientists to refine their communications skills when presenting complex information is one that has been needed for some time,” said Sonsteng. “The Witness Academy will help scientists feel more comfortable when discussing their work with people who do not have a background in science, and it will help those in the courtroom and in the media better understand that information. The goal of this training is not to help scientist witnesses present a specific agenda, rather it is to help them present their work clearly and to help everyone gain a better understanding of complex information.”

The Academy’s first workshop will be held in the spring of 2011.