Five principles of holistic science communication

Community member post by Suzi Spitzer

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 (

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.

CoNavigator: Hands-on interdisciplinary problem solving

Community member post by Katrine Lindvig, Line Hillersdal and David Earle

How can we resolve the stark disparity between theoretical knowledge about interdisciplinary approaches and practical applications? How can we get from written guidelines to actual practices, especially taking into account the contextual nature of knowledge production; not least when the collaborating partners come from different disciplinary fields with diverse expectations and concerns?

For the past few years, we have been developing ways in which academic theory and physical interactions can be combined. The result is CoNavigator – a hands-on, 3-dimensional and gamified tool which can be used:

  • for learning purposes in educational settings
  • as a fast-tracking tool for interdisciplinary problem solving.

CoNavigator is a tool which allows groups to collaborate on a 3-dimensional visualisation of the interdisciplinary topography of a given field or theme. It addresses the contextual and local circumstances and the unique combinations of members in collaborative teams. CoNavigator is therefore short for both Context Navigation and Collaboration Navigation. The process of applying the tool takes around 3 hours.

Using CoNavigator

CoNavigator is composed of writable tiles and cubes to enable rapid, collaborative visualisation, as shown in the first figure below. The tactile nature of the tool is designed to encourage collaboration and negotiation over a series of defined steps.

Making the Tacit Visible and Tangible

Each participant makes a personal tool swatch. By explaining their skills to a person with a completely different background, the participant is forced to re-evaluate, re-formulate, and translate skills in a way that increases their own disciplinary awareness. Each competency that is identified is written onto a separate tool swatch.

Katrine Lindvig (biography)

Line Hillersdal (biography)

David Earle (biography)

Following this, the participants create elements to go in a joint map of a particular topic. Rather than specifying challenges and problems, participants are encouraged to identify themes and interests, so as not to direct or narrow down the scope too early in the process. Each participant is encouraged to identify the key areas of the map from their perspective. Each point is written (or drawn) onto a single tile as shown in the two figures below.

Negotiating and Organizing a Context

Once the individual tiles are created (as many as are needed), the group must negotiate how each tile will be positioned within a collaborative map. During this process the tiles begin to cluster into small or bigger areas, reflecting the specific interests of the group. The emphasis is on themes and areas to be explored and navigated. The individual tiles of the participants are likely to carry themes, points and interests that are very different in terms of details and coverage, which must then also be taken into consideration when constructing the joint map.


The last step challenges the participants to connect to and navigate through themes and interests of the other participants. The new infrastructures created are then related to each participant’s individual tool swatch developed at the beginning of the session. Each participant then assesses where and how singular competencies can be used to deal with the newly developed infrastructure. An important point at this stage is to encourage participants to explore connections and arguments which are open-ended, instead of leading them towards a common goal, project or solution.

The topographies are easy to photograph for later use, while each participant takes with them their individual tool-swatch, which can help them to identify and contextualise their role in future collaborations.


CoNavigator was particularly inspired by a two day workshop format (Braintrust Labs), especially the idea of a Visual Lingua Franca, defined as visualisation used systematically to make communication possible between people not sharing the same discipline. Furthermore a number of students and groups of colleagues have helped us test the tool in various rounds.

Do you have experience with this or other tools to share? What do you think the biggest challenges are in interdisciplinary collaboration and how do you think this tool could help address them?

CoNavigator is composed of writable tiles and cubes to enable rapid, collaborative visualisation (copyright: David Earle)


Creating a joint map of a particular topic (copyright: David Earle)

To find out more more:
Lindvig, K., Hillersdal, L. and Earle, D. (2017). Interdisciplinary tool helps fast-track interdisciplinary learning and collaboration. Integrative Pathways, 39, 2: 3-5. Online: (PDF 2.3MB)

Biography: Katrine Lindvig PhD is an educational ethnographer at the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She specialises in interdisciplinary education, especially the linkages between interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary teaching practices.

Biography: Line Hillersdal PhD is a social anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She specialises in interdisciplinary research collaboration and is particularly involved in how research objects are configured in collaborative practices.

Biography: David Earle is a concept developer and partner at Braintrust, an academic think tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He develops visual and tactile tools and methods to help students learn to navigate through their academic knowledge, and to work more effectively in multi- and interdisciplinary teams.

Two types of interdisciplinary scholarship

Community member post by Andi Hess

Andi Hess (biography)

Would it be helpful to identify two distinct forms of interdisciplinary scholarship ― 1) individual interdisciplinarity and 2) interdisciplinary dialogue and team science ― and to make this distinction explicit in the literature? What are the benefits and challenges of each? Are a different set of resources and methods required to achieve effective interdisciplinary scholarship?

As integration scientists are aware, there are many analyses of appropriate methods for conducting interdisciplinary work. Each has its own benefits and challenges, and each requires a different set of resources and methods for achieving effective interdisciplinary scholarship. Continue reading

Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments

machiel -keestra_jan-2018
Machiel Keestra (biography)

Community member post by Machiel Keestra

How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?

These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:

  • long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
  • teaching particular dispositions and competencies
  • preparing students for intercultural endeavours.

Continue reading

What makes research transdisciplinary?

Community member post by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. Continue reading

Three lessons from statistics for interdisciplinarians and fellow travellers

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In last week’s blog post on recognising interdisciplinary expertise I argued that forming a new i2S discipline could help embed interdisciplinarity and related approaches (transdisciplinarity, systems thinking, action research, T-shaped research and others) in the academic mainstream. But how would such a discipline work? What are the challenges to establishing an i2S discipline and how could they be overcome?

The discipline of statistics provides three productive analogies. Key to success in both statistics and i2S are: collaboration, dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods, and lobbying for effective application of the discipline. Continue reading