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Exploring the challenges of science communication

8 December 2017

A recent National Academies report offers scientists thorough but outdated advice on how to talk to the public about their work.

Watts Bar nuclear power plant
The cooling towers of the Watts Bar nuclear power plant stand near the Tennessee River. The National Academies identified nuclear energy as a contentious issue that requires scientists to exhibit strong communication skills. Credit: TVA Web Team, CC BY 2.0

It’s been a challenging year for science in the US. The White House declared that the nation will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and submitted a budget that proposes deep cuts to federal research funding. The annual Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment survey shows that the US lags behind many Asian and European countries in early science and mathematics education. Although public opinion toward science remains predominantly positive, recent events suggest that more work is required to invigorate a passion for knowledge and discovery.

The need to reinspire the scientific community and the wider public is the motivating factor behind Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine earlier this year. The authors work to identify the challenges faced by scientists when communicating research and to encourage studying particular methods of enhancing the relationship among science, media, and the public. On the surface, the report is detailed and well thought out. But it also offers outdated and incomplete guidance on improving how scientists talk about their work. Rather than focusing on the messages scientists send to the public, the authors should have spent more time thinking about how to modify the relationship between science communicators and consumers.

Sci-comm playbook

The National Academies report suggests that three factors are critical to effective science communication:

  1. Exposure: Planning how to use various methods of communication to reach a variety of audiences can increase public awareness of a particular topic.
  2. Timing: Providing information before people form strong opinions on a topic can overcome the influence of ill-informed opinions based on experience and beliefs.
  3. Duration: Employing a long-term approach to science communication can help overturn personal beliefs and opinions and can convince the public that scientists are generally in agreement on a finding.

To sum up those strategies, the report states, “A strategy of repeated exposure to a message delivered in multiple formats by diverse actors via various platforms is effective for conveying a message of consensus to many segments of the public.”

The problem with the prescribed method of science communication is that it doesn’t give science consumers enough credit. The National Academies’ approach adheres to the deficit model, which assumes that public misunderstanding of and hostility toward science result from a lack of information that can be rectified by education alone. But in recent years researchers have found that more information alone does not bridge gaps between scientists and the public.

Polarizing science

The flaws of the deficit model show themselves again when the authors explore science-related controversies, a sizable percentage of which are not caused solely by lack of information. The report argues that some controversies, such as the teaching of evolution in public schools, arise from the conflicting beliefs (particularly religious), values, and concerns of individuals and organizations. The debate over genetically modified organisms falls into another category, in which uncertainties about scientific findings or their implications amplify fears about the safety and potential applications of scientific advances. Other controversies arise when stakeholders with varying interests present the public with different messages from research. Antioxidants, for example, were initially pushed by the scientific community and manufacturers because of their ability to increase the shelf lives of foods and industrial products. The confusion and misinformation began when the health-food industry began marketing antioxidants for their alleged healing abilities.

The report authors argue that applying a variety of communication approaches can keep science from becoming controversial. Once again, that advice focuses on modifying the message being broadcast rather than improving the interface between science and the public. As such, the report’s suggestions often seem simplistic and fall behind successful initiatives in countries such as the UK.

In the early 2000s, the British government followed a strategy of increasing public engagement to address concerns about the health effects of releasing nanoparticles into the environment. As part of A People’s Inquiry on Nanotechnology and the Environment, scientists with the UK’s Environment Agency held a three-day forum with 13 Londoners who knew very little about nanotechnology. The inquiry, which produced 12 recommendations based on the concerns of the participants, received a generally positive response because it gave the public a say on science-based policy decisions. Scientists found that after the inquiry, the public’s attitude toward nanotechnology shifted and health concerns abated. The British approach is called upstream engagement—the public not only engages in the scientific process, but also plays an active role in decision making. Unfortunately, the National Academies’ guidelines fail to consider upstream engagement, despite its demonstrated effectiveness.

Best practices handling the media

Although the report falls short in its discussion of how researchers can effectively communicate science, it does well in addressing the problems scientists face when interacting with modern media. The National Academies report effectively highlights the diverse range of platforms on which information can now be shared. This is particularly important when we think of younger audience members, who are now learning and communicating science through direct-engagement websites such as YouTube and Twitter.

The report calls social media “the new, and not entirely understood, media environment with which science communication must cope.” The fatalistic tone is somewhat puzzling. Yes, the media and news landscape is changing, but the scientific community should see this as an opportunity to thrive, not simply to cope. At the very least, science communicators should use these platforms to move farther away from the deficit model and build more direct and constructive lines of communication—from engagement events to more-informed health campaigns—between scientists and the public.

Social media and increased accessibility to information do have their drawbacks, and the authors rightly note that journalists have a responsibility to communicate science carefully and accurately. But the report fails to recognize that journalists are science communicators themselves; communicator is not a term that should be used exclusively for those in academia or industry.

The report also casts journalists and scientists into somewhat adversarial roles, stating that “Science communicators need to understand the tools used by journalists to shape scientific information.” That’s a worthwhile point, but the framing reflects a lack of understanding about how scientists can effectively utilize the media when communicating science. A trained science writer is unlikely to give up integrity or factual information in pursuit of a more controversial story. Scientists should see journalism as necessary to the process of communicating science, not as an obstacle to reaching the public.

Toward a more effective future

The authors dedicate a full chapter of the report to a survey of research on the effectiveness of science communication, arguing that the report’s recommendations “will be implemented only if the institutions that communicate science and public and private funders of research become committed to strengthening the science of science communication and working toward evidence-based practices.” The chapter suggests that the scientific community work to develop better measures of the quality and effectiveness of such communication and conduct more in-depth studies of public understanding and perceptions of science. Those suggestions should be welcomed, and they will be particularly helpful to those within the scientific community who have not yet undertaken media and public engagement.

Overall, Communicating Science Effectively provides a strong starting point for scientists and students interested in getting involved in science communication. However, it is a starting point that was found by other countries nearly two decades ago, and the authors would have benefited from looking more closely at initiatives that have taken place outside the US.

Caitlin Astbury holds a master’s degree in science communication and is currently working as an intern at the Royal Society of Biology. Georgina Hines is a digital media & policy officer for the Society of Chemical Industry in London. She recently graduated the University of Manchester with an MSc in science communication and a BSc in neuroscience, and her work has appeared in New Scientist and Research Fortnight.

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