Science communication communication

science-communication-communication

Image credit: John Wood

As far as I’ve understood it, one of the main roles of science communicators (definition unclear, I am aware) is that they are there to bridge the gap (varied in size) between scientific research conducted in various places and the public (again, definition unclear), using various methods of communication (see below).

Science communicators (amongst others) think this is needed because there is a lack of direct communication between the practicing scientists and the public (broad group, I know). As Mark Walport aptly put it, “Science is not finished until it is communicated.”

There are issues of jargon being used by scientists that only other scientists in similar fields of research can understand. Or scientists just cannot be bothered to communicate their work by simplifying it – they’ve spent years building up their knowledge of a complex field, why now spend time reducing its complexity so others can understand it in a shorter time period? Or the contentious issues of Open Access that dominate the publishing industry are preventing tax payers from accessing scientific research paid for by tax payers. (Which then leads to the fact that the jargon might get in the way again, and so on…). Sometimes it’s just scientists saying: “It’s out there, others are doing it, why should I bother?”, or more generally “why should I bother?”

NOTE: I am only very lightly touching on many of the ideas mentioned above – there is a whole world of work (both academic and practical (ahem)) on this topic that can give you more information. But for this particular post, the above should suffice.

Science communicators do this via various means: in print, live events, blogs, broadcast media, PR, museums, science centres, books, the list goes on. You name it, they’ve done it. These science communicators are a multi-talented bunch.

A lot of the work done by science communicators has been shown to do good things. Reports by various fancy bodies (Ipsos Mori’s Public Attitudes to Science, for example) show that, on the whole, the British Public is enthusiastic about, and are generally interested in science. Wahey! Virtual High Five/Fist Pump/Pat-on-the-back/Celebratory Dance (or what ever you fancy)!

Or at least that’s what it looked like from the outside.

I’ve spent the last two days at the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference (aka #Scicomm14), and one session particularly stood out for me. In the penultimate session Emily Dawson (Kings College), Helen Czerski (UCL), Elizabeth Stevenson (Edinburgh University) and Ben Johnson (Graphic Science) were chaired by Imran Khan (British Science Association) to discuss Science Communication in Theory VS Science Communication in Practice.

Apparently, there seems to be a problem. Some of the main highlights of the discussion were:

1) However much control you think you have over how science communication is done, you have ZERO control over how it is interpreted. Bring on the “Red Cabbage Problem” that Ben Johnson from Graphic Science has.

2) Science practitioners don’t like jargon, or at least Helen Czerski doesn’t. (Do you know what “axiology in social justice” means?) 3) Science practitioners don’t know where to go to get more information on the theory of their practice. They know it’s out there, but some of it is behind a paywall, which can be expensive for freelancers. (This was also highlighted in the talk this morning where VERY FEW people actually read the science communication journals – but that’s another story.) 4) The science communication research is everywhere, not just in science communication journals. Practitioners should turn to psychology research, communications research, education research, multidisciplinary research (maybe a bit of physics too?) 5) As science communication research is funded by funding councils, there is an obligation of science communication researchers to communicate their research. 6) What’s the point of having all this science communication research if it isn’t being applied? 7) Evaluation and analysis of a practical project, what ever its nature, is difficult as different stake holders want different bits of information from it. Do any of the above points sound at all familiar? Aren’t they EXACTLY the reasons why science communicators exist at all? Our role as science communicators is to work with scientists so that they can communicate their work to a variety of audiences, helping them to make informed decisions in various aspects of everyday life. Yet there seems to be this lack of communication between our very own practitioners and researchers, so how can practitioners make informed decisions about what they are doing/need to do? Are we seeing the issues we identified in science in science communication? One of the key messages I take away from #SciComm14 is that there is too much focus on the Science in Science Communication. There needs to be a much bigger focus on the Communication. What we can see now is that this doesn’t just apply to our audiences when we are communicating science, but also within our own communities. It turns out there are many many different communities within science communication that aren’t communicating with each other. Do we need science communication communicators? Ben Valsler has volunteered for the job 

(I would like to take this discussion further, so please do leave your thoughts in the comments. I had some great discussions with a few folk after the session, so I know that there are different opinions on the matter. As I am a relative newbie to the science communication world, I’m always looking to learn from those more experienced (hence Speaking of Science)).

8 comments on “Science communication communication

  1. Jovian Tsang May 3, 2014 6:37 am

    1) I think it may be quite difficult to create a “best practices” (of sorts) for science communicators to use… As you mentioned, our role is to help scientists reach a certain audience more effectively. Our role is then quite dependent upon who that audience is (a classroom full of youth, a random group of people at a public event, a special interest group such as politicians, etc.) — the words you use, your examples, your analogies, the scope you’ll cover, everything must be geared toward that group. Therefore, strategies that worked for this science practitioner may not work for that practitioner… OR your strategies may be too vague and general that it may not provide enough structure/help to those who are seeking it.

    2) I agree that there is much to learn from the disciplines of psychology, education and communications… maybe even public relations? Would you suggest that sci commers take time to learn and incorporate more strategies used in these fields?

    3) It’s unfortunate that sci comm journals are behind paywalls — there’s a lot of interesting stuff in these journals (I’ve looked!)… but if it’s not readily accessible to those doing sci comm, then it’s kinda counter-intuitive…

    • Julie Gould May 3, 2014 4:49 pm

      Hi Jovian,

      Thanks for your thoughts. My notes were a very brief summary on the topics covered, and are no way conclusive.

      I agree that finding “best practice” material for the general science communication community would be difficult, nigh impossible, considering we all communicate in such a variety of different ways.

      The main point of the blog post was really to highlight that, even though we meet for conferences like #SciComm14, there still seems to be a gap in our own communication. I kept likening the academics to the scientists, and the practitioners to the audience, and that there was a disconnect between them.

      I would suggest that science communicators take time to learn from a variety of other disciplines, from marketing and psychology to online web design and analytics. There is a whole host of information out there. Likening it to science again, the more interdisciplinary communication we encourage, the more we benefit from each other’s knowledge.

      Julie

  2. Jon Wood May 3, 2014 2:03 pm

    I agree with these statements to a large degree. I’ll digest them a little more. I also agree with Jovian’s comment.

    One of the strengths with the current Scicomm model is that it is highly creative, which allows us to have such a diverse range of routes and make best use of our individual skills. If we all stuck to a theoretical framework, we could stifle originality.

    When I teach engineers how to communicate I try to lead by example. I don’t want them going away and learning how to approach psychology or marketing papers, because they don’t want to do that. If I translate the theory in a way they can appreciate then I’m communicating with my audience. Even a simple three step approach such as ‘identify your message, identify your audience, develop an effective way of engaging the audience with your message’ can be explored very easily without wading through the theory. However, this simple concept is a new approach to many scientists who have specialised in their field without seeing the need to learn how to market it.

    • Julie Gould May 3, 2014 4:52 pm

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and I agree: having the space to be creative in our communication methods is one of the biggest benefits of working in this industry. But it means we are also free to explore other disciplines and communication methods, which I think is something we don’t do as a whole.

      I don’t think anyone was suggesting that we stick to a theoretical framework, but having the academic research inform practice can be beneficial. As science can help inform the public, giving them more to base decisions on, I think this would work in science communication too.

      • Jon Wood May 3, 2014 5:32 pm

        Exactly right. It would be hypocritical of science communicators not to listen, engage and learn from other disciplines about how we communicate with others, expecting them to engage and learn from us.

  3. Martin Robbins May 6, 2014 9:24 am

    The main problem, surely, is that the field of science communication has basically never achieved anything, ever, and is irrelevant to most people who talk about science to or with the public. You talk about the ‘public’ being enthusiastic about science, but in fact that’s entirely down to the sort of people who would be sneered at and dismissed by science communication ‘experts’.

    Even if people who actually do communication weren’t routinely belittled, sneered at or ignored by science communication folk, it’s difficult to see what the field actually has to offer. As a writer, I’m not aware of any concrete body research from the field of science communication that’s able to inform me on e.g. how to better reach, engage or persuade an audience. As far as I’m aware, the same goes for broadcasting. Please point me in the direction of it if I’m mistaken.

    It’s also worth distinguishing between science communication, and science journalism. Science journalism (at least when it’s done properly) seeks to investigate the truth of matters and communicate that to the public. In contrast, science communication has no interest in establishing truth or holding scientists to account, simply in promoting their work – in that sense it’s little different from any other form of PR.

    • Julie Gould May 7, 2014 1:35 pm

      Hi Martin,
      thanks for sharing yur thoughts – and I agree, science journalism and science communication are two different things. I’ve spoken to a few people about this (including Alok Jha http://speakingofscience.juliegould.net/science-communication/podcast-speaking-alok-jha/) so I will amend the post accordingly.

      I’m not sure where to go to find evaluation metrics, but I think that’s part of the point I was trying to make – there are so many people looking for that information, but they can’t find it. Maybe it doesn’t exist, and this is an opportunity for something to be done about it.

      As for your other point, about science communication having “never achieved anything”, I’m afraid I’m not qualified to comment, but hopefully others can.

      J

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