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13 December 2017
DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 5 Science Communication – an introduction to the theory and trends Print
Defining the Field
Monday, 24 November 2014 18:40

This blog, based on a paper by Marina Joubert of the Centre for Research on Evaluation Science and Technology (CREST)  discusses Science Communication and its role as part of Research Uptake.

In the scientific literature there is considerable debate about the meaning of terms such as “Public understanding of science”; ”Science Communication” and “Public Engagement with Science”. These terms are often used interchangeably, but for the purposes of this article we will talk about Science Communication, and discuss its role as part of Research Uptake.

 

Understanding Science Communication

In a paper entitled Science Communication – an introduction to the theory and trends, Marina Joubert of CREST defines science communication as making information about science relevant and accessible to people (specific interest groups or the broad, general public) in a way that they can understand it, and possibly also use the information and even respond to it. Why is this important? Its value says Joubert is that “the level of scientific literacy in a democratic society has important implications for science policy decisions and says that raising this level will improve the quality of science and technology, and political life”.

"science communication is not simply communicating about science or research, it is a multidirectional process which contributes to mutual learning"

 

Models of Science Communication

Science Communication is complex for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is more than one “public”. The public is heterogeneous and multi-faceted. In addition science communication is not simply communicating about science or research, it is a multidirectional process which contributes to mutual learning.

In her paper Joubert outlines a number of science communication models which range on a continuum from the Deficit Model, which see’s the public as “empty vessel” in which scientists deposit neutral scientific information. It is a linear model from scientist to citizen without any engagement. The interactive model, in contrast, sees science communication as a dialogue which occurs in a context where sciences is imbibed with social norms and values and citizens can meaningfully contribute to the debates and  even the governance of science.

 

Role players in the science communication process

The key role players in the communication process are the scientists themselves (the producers of new knowledge); communication professionals, specialist journalists or press officers (who often act as communication catalysts or mediators); the communication platform (for example mass media or social media) and the audience(s) or public(s).

Science communicators are professionals who facilitate scientists’ engagement with various sectors of the community. Huntington (2008) describes science communicators as ‘extraordinary intermediaries’.

There are many different ways (processes) to communicate science, but most will fall into one of the following three groups:

  1. Traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television). Traditional media is potentially powerful and can reach large audiences, but it tends to be one-way and superficial, and scientists have little control over how the media covers their work.
  2. Face-to-face communication (public talks, debates, science cafés, science theatre, science festivals). Face-to-face events are more personal and engender two-way communication, and they also give scientists more control, although they have a limited audience (often reaching people already interested) and can be very time- and resource-intensive.
  3. Online communication (online articles, blogs, social media, podcasts). Online communication has the potential to reach large audiences and allow direct interaction, but it is hard to control how the audience will engage and respond. It requires an ongoing investment of time and specialised skills.

How science is communicated is as important as the channels that are used. It is best if the material is relevant, explained in a simple (but not dumbed down) way, focussed on a specific set of messages rather than trying to share large volumes of information and uses a style which is accessible to the audience. It is also important to start with the findings and their implications, and link these findings to real situations. In other words make the findings concrete by telling a story rather than a set of facts. The methodology, which is often first in an academic paper, can be referred to, rather than focussed on.

"Science media offices and officers play a critical guiding role in providing guidance on how best to communicate scientific findings to the public"

 

Communication as a science

Scientists are not always very comfortable with communicating with the public, and it is important that the universities and other research institutions provide them with support. Science media offices and officers play a critical guiding role in providing guidance on how best to communicate scientific findings to the public. In particular they can assist in the development of science communication plans which have measurable objectives which also allows the institution to evaluate science communication activities and impacts.

 

Universities as Champions of Science Communication

Communicating science is an important part Research Uptake, making it crucial for universities, as institutions, to provide mechanisms to support the science communication process. A large part of this lies in the institutional culture which can, through supportive policy, training opportunities and guidelines for ethical science communication recognise and support the work done by scientists in terms of research uptake.

 

This is important because science communication can help universities contribute in a number of ways to society, by:

  • ·        Inspiring critical thinking
  • ·        Stemming the flow of “bad” science
  • ·        Informing public policy
  • ·        Sharing the beauty of the scientific endeavour

 

This paper is one of a number produced by CREST. The others in the series are:

DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 1 Shifts in science policy and the evolution of the university and its role

DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 2 Traditions of Knowledge Utilisation and the most influential models

DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 3 Knowledge to Policy (discussed in a series of four blogs)

DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 4 Stakeholder Engagement

DRUSSA Handbook Series Essay 5 Science Communication


Marina Joubert, from Southern Science is also a part time lecturer at CREST

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