Challenges in Science Communication and 5 Tips to Overcome Them
Communicating science is as important as getting the science done, but it's often not held to the same standard. Let research make a bigger impact by prioritising effective science communication.
Research, teaching and communication: these are the three pillars of academic institutions. We rely on universities and research institutions to not only push the boundaries of our collective knowledge, but to also take responsibility in effectively sharing information. But in practice, the communication of science is not given the same attention, structure and importance as its two counterparts.
In this newsletter, we dive into what complexities arise in science communication as well as their implications. Included below is also a list of resources and actionable tips to aid any researcher in enhancing their public impact by communicating their science more effectively.
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Why science communication matters
Communicating science effectively to the general public is arguably as important as “getting the science done” in the first place. From preventing deaths using vaccinations to enabling fair policy decisions, getting the truth across to the right audiences makes a big impact to real human lives. However, as issues become more polarised and politicised, it becomes significantly more daunting to advocate for the science behind these topics. And the hot topics are just one of many issues.
Between scientists and the public sits the vast and complex world of media. News channels, social media outlets and intermediaries of information use scientific advances as just a portion of their broader message. When genuine understanding is left out of the message, or misinterpreted, then misinformation and conspiracies arise. By the time damage control comes in via science communication, it’s too late. That’s why some scientists now advocate for prebunking, or jumping in before the misinformation spreads by anticipating what it will be.
Challenges in science communication
When entering the public arena, scientists benefit greatly from recognising the prevailing currents and rules of operation. At its core, social media just makes the exchange of information faster, but the laws by which we take in information remain the same. In media, trust is often more important than the facts. Put even more broadly, according to Dr. Michael Shermer, beliefs come first, reasons for beliefs come second. Although tackling the psychology of beliefs and information theory is likely beyond scope of most science communication projects, it’s important to at least recognise that information exchange is not based strictly on evidence or merit. In fact, flaws in existing science communication initiatives already demonstrate the difficult balance in promoting science versus sharing fairly.
Dr. Benedikt Fecher and his colleagues explore issues of quality in science communication in their recent paper. There are many concerns to tackle, like how academic press releases may exaggerate achievements or conflate PR with science. On the broader scale, processes are needed to manage decentralised communication (scientist directly to journalist or public) and centralised approaches (going through a university press).
In addition to the challenges of reaching people effectively, the very process of science communication is often, ironically, unscientific in nature. Although frequently promoted via grants or institutional missions, science communication work is rarely given the critical lens of review and follow-up. But clear strategies and evaluation processes are critical — they transform science communication from something that gets done and forgotten into a continuous process of improvement and learning. Basic strategies can be adopted to provide accountability and a goal-oriented focus.
Setting appropriate goals and planning evaluation methods at the onset of the project are key tactics, the responsibility of which can be shared between scientists and various stakeholders. Simply taking a step back and recognising your ability to design these evaluation strategies is already an improvement. Some researchers argue that the very methods used in science communication are a result of behavioural decisions, so having some perspective for why and how you design a strategy enables better choices.
5 tips for science communication
Taking all this at face-value, the idea of tackling your next outreach initiative may be intimidating. Thankfully, the dedicated efforts of previous organisations and individuals provide insights into successful frameworks, methods and techniques.
Here, we summarise 5 simple tips when it comes to pursuing science communication:
Rely on existing organisations: Whether it is your institution’s press or media outlet, a local outreach organisation, or large-scale organisation that connects scientists to the public, there’s likely already a place you can plug into. Check out QUEST’s toolkits, Futurm, or ESCI.
Review your funding: Certain grants focus exclusively on science communication (this Danish one or NSF one, for example) but plenty of others allow for, if not require some outreach to be implemented.
Follow and innovate on best practices: For example, consider resources like Communicating Science Effectively or the related paper here which provides 3 key questions to ensure the project itself is successful: are the right people involved, are they talking effectively with one another, and are they talking effectively with stakeholders?
Follow guiding questions to craft your message: 1) Who is your audience? 2) What is your main message? 3) Why is your message important?
Learn more about science communication: Your institution may already have a department or centre that can offer resources. Alternatively, look at online offerings and free courses.
What have been your experiences in communicating science and the challenges you’ve encountered? Share with us by commenting below or tweeting at us @LitmapsApp.
Science on social media, May 2023 Nature piece on Turkey-Syria earthquakes
QUEST – QUality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology communication, 2 year projects investigating science communication
Science Gallery Network, Global network of universities to engage public with science and art
European Science Communication Institute (ESCI)
COMPASS, science-based communication professionals
Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), informal science education resources
Science of Science: Discovery, Communication and Impact (SoS:DCI), NSF funding opportunity
Project grants for science communication and debate using novel communication platforms – 2023, Danish funding opportunity
Science, Media, and the Public, university research group
Science Communicators Association of New Zealand (SCANZ)
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