Five principles of holistic science communication

Community member post by Suzi Spitzer

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Suzi Spitzer (biography)

How can we effectively engage in the practice and art of science communication to increase both public understanding and public impact of our science? Here I present five principles based on what I learned at the Science of Science Communication III Sackler Colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in November 2017.

1. Assemble a diverse and interdisciplinary team

  1. Scientists should recognize that while they may be an expert on a particular facet of a complex problem, they may not be qualified to serve as an expert on all aspects of the problem. Therefore, scientists and communicators should collaborate to form interdisciplinary scientific teams to best address complex issues.
  2. Science is like any other good or service—it must be strategically communicated if we want members of the public to accept, use, or support it in their daily lives. Thus, research scientists need to partner with content creators and practitioners in order to effectively share and “sell” scientific results.
  3. Collaboration often improves decision making and problem solving processes. People have diverse cognitive models that affect the way each of us sees the world and how we understand or resolve problems. Adequate “thought world diversity” can help teams create and communicate science that is more creative, representative of a wider population, and more broadly applicable.

2. Tell a story

  1. Great science and great stories have something in common—as Frank Sesno explained at the colloquium, both involve “Compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome.” Holistic science communication should therefore integrate diverse facts into a comprehensive message, and tell the story of the research process and results in a way that is engaging and relevant to an audience.
  2. There is a move towards attention-grabbing, tweet-sized science. Be careful to avoid sensationalism and do not shy away from studying complex issues in favor of addressing “tweet-sized problems.”
  3. In order to help our science tell a more complete story that includes more voices and resonates with more diverse audiences, scientists should be less numbers-driven and more willing and eager to incorporate qualitative data and experiential knowledge into their research.

3. Make the message personal

  1. Clearly articulate why people should care about your science. This involves thinking about what matters to the audience and then framing your message in a way that makes it more localized. For example, talk about cause and effect relationships that impact people’s daily lives.
  2. The identity and public perception of the messenger matters. As communicators, we must consider how our own identities might impact the way our message is received.
  3. Be mindful of the “information climate,” or socio-political landscape in which your science will be received. Science communicators need to consider the mental models of their audience members and think about how to best connect with audiences that may be culturally different or resistant to the new information.

4. Communicate with people, rather than to them

  1. It is mutually beneficial for scientists and the public to establish a two-way dialogue. Engaging the public and listening to their input helps scientists make their research more socially valuable and comprehensive, while scientists’ research helps the public make informed, evidence-based decisions. Excluding other voices from what should be an inclusive conversation causes scientists to lose public respect, rapport, and support.
  2. Face-to-face interactions and shared experiences are important for developing relationships and creating learning outcomes. Effective science communicators should aim to create moments that enthuse people to keep learning about our science and asking questions, even after we are gone.
  3. Science communicators need to abandon the information deficit model. The deficit model posits that skepticism or disuse of science stems from the public’s lack of knowledge, and if scientists take time to educate the masses and communicate information, then science-based decision making and public support of science will prevail throughout society. This model does not work! The missing link is not communication, but effective communication.

5. Remember to be a human first!

  1. If we want people to understand and use our science in their lives, we must earn their trust. We should not only communicate our science, but also communicate who we are and where we come from in order to give our expertise context and gain trust as humans.
  2. Scientists are often concerned with maintaining objectivity and eliminating bias. While these goals are understandable in a lab setting with respect to experimental design and execution, they are not attainable, or even desirable, in a real-world setting with respect to complex, transdisciplinary, and controversial societal issues. Scientists should realize that they are not objective actors, and that science is not only biased, but often inherently and unavoidably political. When communicating science, we must acknowledge our own biases and maintain honest and transparent communication with our audience.
  3. Scientists should work with other members of society to create socially-accepted and socially-useful science. First and foremost, the responsibility of science is to deliver to society, and in order to fulfill this social contract, scientists need to collaborate with experts in other disciplines, and establish a natural two-way dialogue with members of wider society in order to ensure that science is meeting the needs of the public.

What other suggestions do you have for thinking critically about your role as a science communicator? How do you remind yourself to always be mindful of your responsibility to society as a scientific researcher and as a citizen?

This blog post is based on a longer version published on the website of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network (http://ian.umces.edu/blog/2017/12/15/five-principles-of-holistic-science-communication/).

Biography: Suzi Spitzer is a PhD student in the Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, USA. She works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Integration & Application Network (IAN) studying science communication and citizen science. She is researching how effective community engagement and science communication can facilitate collaborative learning between scientists and the public within the context of citizen science.

6 thoughts on “Five principles of holistic science communication

  1. Scientists as well as science communicators should know that humans are emotional beings and we connect to each other with emotions. Public interest and engagement comes from telling a science story in an emotionally appealing way… I often share this idea in my blog

  2. Great summary of many of the highlights from the Sackler Colloquium. I’m so glad you included the point about mental models. I often talk with scientists about this when helping them think about how to be more effective communicators. Researchers take a great deal of language and concepts for granted, forgetting that people without a scientific background, or even from another discipline, may have radically different interpretations of specific terms and ideas.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sunshine! I think it is so interesting how the same information can be interpreted so differently by people with divergent epistemologies. One example that seems to come up repeatedly in my work is the idea of bias. Scientists tend to shy away from bias at all costs and view it as a source of error, whereas social scientists often embrace bias, and sometimes even devote entire sections of their publications to self-reflexive discussion. Objectivity is a necessity and goal for the former, but an illusion for the latter.

  3. Excellent points. With regard to point 4, it is only through listening to members of the public who were so often stakeholders in the very issues that I study, did I realize the value of multiple perspectives. I also quickly learned that clear and concise communication did not oversimplifying the information. In fact, communication with members of the public made communication with my colleagues much easier!

    • I agree, Rebecca! Taking the time to discuss my research with family and friends has not only improved my research itself, but has also changed the way I communicate with colleagues and other stakeholders. It’s helpful to try to see my science through different eyes and really understand and articulate exactly why what I am doing should matter to other people.

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