Science Comm

Promoting the Art of Communicating Science to Non-scientists

by Talia M. Planas-Fontánez

The following is an opinion article about science communication, adapted from the “Communicating Science” class offered at Rutgers University.

Have you ever tried to give your parents, or any family member, a clear explanation of what you do as a research scientist? How many unfamiliar technical format and jargon did you use? Science communication and public outreach is one of the biggest challenges in any field of research. Science journalism is expected to disseminate scientific knowledge; the goal is to make this knowledge widely accessible for audiences outside the scientific community. The media helps to secure social support and public legitimacy, and contribute to the transformation of scientific knowledge by relating it to concerns outside of science. However, despite the growing influence of science and technology in the economic, social and political domain, the communications gap between scientists and the public is wide.

The relationship between science and the public or the environment is characterized as “distance”, “gap”, and “creative tension”. Scientists and journalists are like strangers to each other, not able to understand each other’s language, and driven by different agendas. These difficulties are due, in part, to the lack of institutional support, work pressures and lack of communication training. For example, as part of our scientific training, we present our work at national and/or international meetings to other scientists and experts in specific field. However, participation is much more limited in other types of interaction with the public, such as talks, interviews with journalists, and publications of popular articles.

Let’s take action!

There are three critical components that can help us to improve science communication: (1) focus on key scientific questions; (2) know the expectations and needs of your audience; and (3) focus the message on the effect you want to achieve. Taking these components into consideration for any presentation or talk will make your message clear and effective. Always remembering that “the height of sophistication is simplicity” so the speaker should try to put himself in the audience’s frame of mind and then deliver the simplest, and strongest message. The audience will appreciate it and reward you for it.

Key scientific questions is about engaging your audience – it’s about the ‘so what?’ and ‘why does it matter?’ and ‘why should people care?’ of your message. Each scientific question is designed to answer important issues. The goal, after the interpretation of the data, is to communicate both the strengths and the risks of your data.

Target your audience. Who is in my audience and what do they need to know to understand my work? The statements should be clear, vivid, and use conversational language that your audience understands. Narratives are easier to comprehend and audiences find them more engaging than traditional logical-scientific communication. The use of examples, anecdotes, and analogies are ways to engage your audience and make them care about what you are telling them. The goal is to make your audience want to know what happens next in your story.

Know your goal. Your message should be focused on what matters most. For example, if you are working with a promising therapy for a specific disease talk about the background of this disease and the benefits of this new therapy. Avoid “the curse of knowledge”, a cognitive bias that assumes your audience knows the background, and connect with your public.

Finally, as modern scientists we can take advantage of the social media to reach more people and share our knowledge. It is an important medium that policymakers, media and other scholars follow. Many people don’t read primary scientific literature, perhaps because of a paywall or because of the unfamiliar technical format and language. However, if we train ourselves to write about our research in a simple and concise way it can be made into a video or shared on social media, such as a blogs, and Facebook. Re-defining science communication and making it available to everybody is still a work in progress in our society, but the scientific community is improving, step by step.

This article was edited by Maryam Alapa.

11 thoughts on “Promoting the Art of Communicating Science to Non-scientists”

  1. The Communicating Science class at Rutgers that this blog author took is a great way to hone these important skills. Thanks for the great article!

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