National Science Foundation, William Mitchell partner to train expert witnesses

William Mitchell College of Law and the National Science Foundation recently partnered to present a week-long crash course for scientists on how to talk about science to non-scientists.

The Expert Witness Advocacy Training Academy immersed scientists in mock court proceedings, administrative agency presentations, arbitrations, congressional hearings, and media interviews.

The goal, according to William Mitchell Professor and the training’s organizer John Sonsteng, is to help the scientists improve their communications skills so they can be more effective expert witnesses.

“As a lawyer,  I don’t want them to be an advocate for one side or the other,” said Sonsteng. “I want them to justify their science.”

Sonsteng built the course around a 1972 cloud seeding experiment that went fatally wrong, causing a flood in Rapid City South Dakota that killed 238 people.

The 23 scientists, some major names in climate research, spent the week subjecting themselves to court room cross examinations, depositions, congressional hearings, and press conferences – all of it based on a 80-page fiction that Sonsteng and his colleagues created around the 1972 event.

“Who caused it? Was it nature’s way or was it due to cloud seeding that was negligent,” Sonsteng said.

The training was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation because scientists rarely have to discuss, explain, or interpret their work outside the scientific arena.

Congressional Hearing Session

“My feeling is that scientists have gotten too comfortable with discussing their interpretation of their data and do not give enough thought to listening to other interpretations or perspectives,” said David Verado, head of the atmosphere section for the NSF. “I see this clearly in the discussions surrounding climate science.”

The need for scientists who can clearly discuss their research with a range of audiences is becoming increasingly acute, according to Verado. The federal government is about to announce new rules limiting green-house gas emissions, and politicians are sure to disagree about whether or not the limits are needed.

“The formulation of policy could be helped by a full throated discussion of the science,” Verado said. “But that can only occur if the scientists are comfortable with acknowledging and being open to alternative interpretations.”

William Mitchell plans to hold another training for scientists next year.