Science Communication

What is SciComm?

Science communication (scicomm) is a rapidly evolving field focused on public communication of science-related topics to various audiences (i.e. general public, non-experts, journalists, or policymakers) toward the goal of science literacy. This field encompasses various types of communication, such as science journalism, policy, educational outreach, and citizen science initiatives. Effective scicomm is important for generating political, economic, and public support for scientific research as well as for informing decision making and addressing scientific misinformation. All in all, scicomm can be best summarized the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats”; it has been argued that if the public enjoyed and better understood science, science would be better funded and regulated. Likewise, people would be more likely to enter the STEM workforce, further promoting the field.

Learning SciComm

In order to achieve these ideals, scientists must cultivate the skills necessary to communicate effectively through various modalities with a broad range of audiences. Acquiring these skills can occur through formal training, such as those programs at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University or The Art of Science Communication offered by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

In addition, better scicomm practices can be self-taught via books, articles, videos and more. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers a comprehensive toolkit of scicomm resources. Furthermore, social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, have become hot-beds for engagement between scientists and the public. For a better idea of how to captivate the Twitterverse with your science, check out A Scientist’s Guide to Twitter by Leah Cairns at NIH Best.

Key Points

No matter the path you decide to pursue, there are two guiding principles of scicomm to always keep in mind:

  1. No jargon!
  2. Jargon is critical for science to communicate with each other quickly with a high degree of precision. However, when speaking to someone outside of your field of expertise, it is important to digest that jargon into words that everyone knows. Although it may take more time and effort than using a single word or phrase to convey a complex idea, dropping jargon will enable your audience to better understand and keep pace with you.

  3. Connect with the audience
  4. It is very easy for scientists to fall into their role as “lecturers” while communicating science with an audience, both written and orally. This can create a divide between scientists and audiences, leading to distrust and indifference. To promote engagement, it is best to connect with the audience via shared humanity, humor, storytelling and/or metaphors. Integration of these techniques conveys vulnerability and originality to the audience, promoting attentiveness and facilitating comprehension. In face-to-face scenarios, connection can also be achieved through positive non-verbal cues, including strong eye contact, deliberate pace of speech, openness of posture, and controlled and comfortable movement.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Everyone lives a busy life. Seeing images of coastal flooding can be upsetting, but for a struggling coal miner living in the mountains – how does this impact their daily lives? Similarly, people want to feel heard. Replacing a person’s long-held beliefs with data isn’t just difficult – it’s ineffective (see confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance). So ask yourself:

  • How do I show that I’m open to discussion? Confident, but not arrogant?
  • What do they care about in their daily lives?
  • What does my audience already know/believe about this? Why do they believe that?
  • How much information is necessary?