What is this ‘science communication’ you speak of?

February 04, 2014

Guest Post by Sarah Boon, PhD, FRCGS

Scientists are often bombarded with terms such as ‘outreach’ and ‘public engagement’, or ‘communicating science’ and making science ‘accessible’ to the public. The Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC) promotes outreach in several forms – whether it’s women in science research chairs  or awards for science promotion.

While, in Canada, we don’t have specific public engagement requirements as outlined in the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Broader Impacts criterion, it’s likely only a matter of time before these criteria are included in Canadian grant applications.

It’s not just about getting funding, however. Increasing public engagement in science is critical given that a range of major policy decisions revolve around scientific topics, and that a healthy democracy relies on an informed electorate. The more you can share your research with people, the better they’ll be able to make their own informed decisions on key science policy questions such as vaccination, genetically modified foods, and other issues.

So what is science communication, and how can scientists be successful at it?

Professional science communicators (e.g., journalists) can take detailed, complex science from a range of fields, distill it to its key points, and translate those points into publicly accessible language. Scientists, however, often have an innate distrust of the journalist species. They fear that distillation is more appropriately termed dilution, and that translation is a code word for dumbing down.
 
At its most basic, science communication is defined as sharing science-related topics with non-experts. For scientists this can take a number of forms: from teaching classes to a radio interview or newspaper article about your research, to a presentation to local high school students, or a popular blog post. The key to successful science communication is that you’re keen on your topic, use accessible language, and make it relevant to your audience.

Exactly how do you do that? For many academic scientists, the requirement to do outreach is just one more task on an already full plate. Add to that the strong academic tendency toward introversion, differences in how words such as ‘theory’ are defined in scientific versus public terminology, and the disconnect between a public that often learns best through story and scientists who deal best in facts, and things can get complicated in a hurry.

For starters, find out if your university has a communications group you can work with. While most universities have a campus-wide communications office, some also have department-specific communications people. There may also be outreach or recruitment groups looking for professors to attend schools or community events to share their research. Alternatively, you can go the private route and hire communication-focused companies such as Endeavour Scientific to help you get the word out on your research.

If you’re really keen, you can write a blog – either you own, or as a guest post on someone else’s. Many scientists use blogs to talk about how their research applies to the everyday, or to translate complex research papers into plain language research summaries (see these examples from glaciology and entomology).

Alternatively, you can sign up for a program designed specifically to improve the communication skills of academic scientists. Canadian researchers Elena Bennett (McGill) and Martin Sharp (UAlberta) have participated in the American Leopold Leadership Program, and brought their expertise back home to develop homegrown communication workshops (McGill and UAlberta).

At its easiest level, science communication is about being a scientist in public: connecting non-scientists with your research and its role in everyday life. Even if you just comment on someone’s Facebook post explaining how a plant in their latest picture can be used to fix nitrogen in the garden, or send a Tweet outlining your latest research paper in 140 characters – you’re communicating science. And that’s a good start.

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Sarah Boon Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers Association and The Explorer’s Club, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro

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Image: Thinkstock)

Filed Under: Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Sarah Boon

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Stacey Lee Kerr

Sarah has raised some excellent points in this blog post. She suggested that I echo a comment I made on Twitter, so I'd like to add that for scientists or organizations that are looking to communicate their scientific work, but don't know where to start (or are busy/overwhelmed by the idea of it all), they can also hire a specialist! Graduates of the Environmental Visual Communication program (eviscomm.ca) are trained in new media, social media, and visual comm methods like photography, design and multimedia - we can help you find ways to bring your work to broader audiences

Karen McKee

Science curricula typically don't emphasize communications training beyond traditional outlets (journal publications and conference presentations). However, the scientist of the 21st century must be prepared to communicate with a non-specialist audience, including students, resource managers, policy-makers, the news media, and the general public. This situation is changing as science departments recognize they need to train students for the future, but it is a slow process.

As you say, scientists are often overwhelmed with meeting their research and teaching obligations and give science communication and other outreach short shrift. However, I've found that those scientists who are interested in broader communication are additionally stumped by the belief that it takes extensive training and resources to communicate with a broader audience. As Stacey suggests, scientists can hire a media specialist. However, many students, young scientists just starting out, and those in developing countries lack the resources to hire a media specialist.

Lack of resources/skills were what prevented me from participating in science communication for most of my career. However, I finally realized that my beliefs were unfounded and began creating communication products (research briefs, videos) for broad audiences. In doing so, I discovered many benefits for my career and research (such as meeting the Broader Impacts criterion in grant proposals) and also rediscovered the passion for science that had become buried during years of competing for grant funds, space in journals, and recognition.

I subsequently started a blog to encourage students and young scientists to use video (and other visual media) to describe their work and provide many tutorials and tips how to accomplish this with minimal resources. And I recently completed an electronic guidebook for scientists and science students interested in science videography:

http://thescientistvideographer.com/wordpress/ebook

As competition for jobs, space in journals,

Kevin Shi

Thanks for the article! I just have one thought I'd like to share. I don't think the public learning through stories conflicts with scientists learning through fact. The public just prefers more context and a vivid, engaging description of the journey towards the facts whereas for many scientists the facts alone would suffice. Science communicators incorporating stories in their presentations and in their writing does not mean rejecting facts; it just means spacing out the facts with more context in-between.

Kevin Shi

Thanks for the article! I just have one thought I'd like to share. I don't think the public learning through stories conflicts with scientists learning through fact. The public just prefers more context and a vivid, engaging description of the journey towards the facts whereas for many scientists the facts alone would suffice. Science communicators incorporating stories in their presentations and in their writing does not mean rejecting facts; it just means spacing out the facts with more context in-between.

Sarah Boon

Thanks everyone for your comments.

Stacey - the work of EvSciComm students is really good, and their training provides the opportunity to bridge the science-public gap.

Karen - it's true, most scientists can't afford to hire a communications person. But the agencies in which they work can. Successful universities, for example, have communications people in specific departments whose job it is to communicate science going on in that dept. It's not that scientists shouldn't or can't do it, but of focusing on what you're good at. If you're a scientist who's good at scicomm - great, go for it. But for those who aren't, institutional support for communication is an excellent alternative.

Kevin - I don't see an actual conflict between facts vs. stories, but more of a perceived conflict from a scientists' perspective that facts can't be communicated in a story-like fashion. You can read more about this on my personal blog post: http://snowhydro1.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/space-between-sci-and-story/

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