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)).

Fred Humphreys

Scientist at University of Portsmouth
I'm a research scientist based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. My passions include biology, gardening and walking.

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