NASA tries to sound more down-to-earth

A NASA official has told the agency’s Web designers to write below the college level in response to a recent Education Department study that found that the average American college graduate's literacy has declined significantly in the past decade.

Last week Brian Dunbar, NASA’s Internet services manager, sent an e-mail message to all of the agency’s Web designers and developers telling them to work harder at explaining scientific concepts.

“It's pretty clear that if we're writing at the college level, we're writing for an ever-diminishing portion of the U.S. population,” he wrote in his message. The instructions were part of a routine exchange with NASA Web employees and not a formal policy or directive.

Dunbar stressed that although the site’s visitors might not be familiar with complex scientific language, they care about science and are intelligent enough to understand NASA’s projects.

Dunbar’s tips on how to write for the Web include avoiding acronyms, writing in laymen’s terms and using short sentences.

“This is not an argument for ‘dumbing down’ content," he wrote. "I categorically reject the term, which I find offensive. ‘Dumbing down’ is itself an intellectually lazy concept: It assumes that what we do can never be explained to anyone except at the most technically sophisticated level and that our audience -- who pay our salaries and buy us all these neat toys -- is incapable of understanding anything about what we do."

Dunbar said employees who refuse to explain technical terms are looking for a way to avoid the painstaking work of teaching.

Such scientists and employees “appear vaguely insulted at the notion that their work could be understood by someone without extensive experience in the field,” he said.

Dunbar ended his message by telling his readers an anecdote about Mark Twain, who once apologized to a friend for writing a long letter by saying, "I didn't have time to write a short one."

In other words, Dunbar wrote, it's easier to use technical terms and acronyms rather than write clearly for nonscientists.

Some NASA employees objected to Dunbar's style guidelines, arguing that citizens expect to hear high-tech talk from the agency.

Ron Koczor, a scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and manager of the [email protected] site, was one dissenter. He wrote in a reply to Dunbar that "many in the public expect NASA to be at least a little bit scientific and to reflect the ‘rocket scientist’ mystique.”

He suggested keeping the high-tech language on at least some of NASA's Web pages.

“To reach the maximum audience we can, we need to reach out to multiple audiences with multiple levels of writing and through multiple outlets,” Koczor wrote.

Dunbar responded by saying that Webmasters should use their technical vocabulary but follow the phrases with clear explanations. He added that such measures are necessary at a time when NASA’s ambitions are under public and congressional scrutiny.

“NASA does a great job of communicating with people who are already predisposed to support portions of the agency's programs,” Dunbar said in reply to Koczor’s message. “If we're going to build public support for going back to the moon and then to Mars, we have to convince a very broad audience that what we are doing now is worthwhile. Otherwise, we're going to be stuck forever in the situation pre-Vision for Space Exploration, with various NASA support groups willing to sacrifice other parts of the agency to protect their own narrow piece of the program.”

Today, NASA officials said the agency will use the Web to convey the excitement of the American space program to visitors of all ages.

“Reducing the technical and scientific jargon to make a story easier to understand and more relevant is a part of our responsibility as communicators,” NASA spokeswoman Sonja Alexander said.


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