SciComm: How, why & what for?

Words with different meanings

By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

Communication. Seems simple. We do it every day — face-to-face, phone, text message, email. But, communicating science? Not so easy, when faced with conveying complex subjects with terms not readily understood by an audience far out of the comfort zone.

It’s one thing to talk to colleagues who draw from similar vocabularies, and possess a foundation of knowledge that creates a level playing field. But, quite another to upend all that is known and assumed, and essentially start from scratch with new rules that don’t apply to the familiar game.

Thankfully, there is a growing body of information and work on science communication, from why do it to how to do it better.

How to communicate science

Focused on climate change, Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication serves as a primer on science communication.

The document outlines key points to consider, starting with understanding audiences and how people think. The information details how to craft and frame a message as well as deal with science uncertainty and skepticism.

Connecting on Climate is a joint project between the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and ecoAmerica, and is designed as a follow up to CRED’s 2009 guide, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public.

Check out page 55 in Connecting on Climate for a table — Words with Different Meanings to Scientists and the General Public — that details words commonly used by scientists that carry different meaning for the non-science audience. The advice? “Make sure to avoid jargon and use words that truly convey what is meant to be communicated.”

The final section provides a roadmap for taking action and bringing about behavioral change, which, again, specifically addresses climate change, but the concepts can be adapted to broader use. Equally helpful, there is a handy summary offered at the end of the document, summing up the details in a quick reference guide. A list of resources for additional reading includes more in depth information on focus groups, surveys and communication.

Bring your scicomm to the classroom

Writing for, Kirk Englehardt, director of research communication and marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology, makes a compelling case for scientists conducting outreach in schools — not just for educating students, but also for developing science communication skills.

Englehardt highlights a recently published paper, Developing Key Skills as a Science Communicator: Case Studies of Two Scientist-Led Outreach Programmes, and provides an engaging read with the lead author in a Q & A format.

As Samuel M. Illingworth notes, “If you are able to explain cosmic microwave background radiation to a 10-year old (as I was required to do on a recent trip), then suddenly having to answer questions about the nature of your own research to a room full of experts seems a lot less daunting.”

Scicomm reasons & resources

The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology offers up a solid framework for talking science, from basic pointers that actually match up well with the CRED documents, to developing public presentations and creating messages, to speaking with reporters and managing an online presence.

But, before delving into the resources, first take a look at the Center’s discussion on public understanding and engagement — what it is, why it is important and the changing scope of interaction.

Among the resources provided, a link to Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education, a Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) report, lays the groundwork, stating:

“… to address complex scientific questions and controversies in a way that fosters responsible and appropriate scientific knowledge production and decision making, we must create opportunities for an exchange of knowledge, ideas, and perspectives that involves the participation of all aspects of society—publics, scientists, and decision makers. This exchange can help create well-informed, empowered publics who are better equipped to contribute to our understanding of the world and to responsible decision making.”

(Image credit: Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication, p.55)

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