Book Review: Effective Science Communication (Second Edition)

By Sheeva Azma

Science communication (or “SciComm”) is at the heart of all of the work we do at Fancy Comma. That’s why I was recently excited to obtain a free copy of the book “Effective Science Communication (Second Edition): A practical guide to surviving as a scientist” by scientists Sam Illingworth and Grant Allen. Both are scientists and SciComm professionals in the field of atmospheric sciences. Illingworth is a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, while Allen is a professor at The University of Manchester.

Communication Skills Are Key to Successful Science

Illingworth and Allen’s book contains useful knowledge gained both from the academic literature as well as their own SciComm endeavors. As they write, the book is meant to be a “practical guide to surviving, and thriving, as a scientist in the 21st century.”  In fact, they say, being a scientist and having good communication skills are inseparable: “To become better scientists, we need to be more effective at both communicating our research to the scientific community, and discussing it with non-scientists.”

“To become better scientists, we need to be more effective at both communicating our research to the scientific community, and discussing it with non-scientists.” – Effective Science Communication (2nd Edition) by Illingworth and Allen

“Inward-Facing” SciComm Is Used by Scientists, for Scientists

The book categorizes SciComm into two categories: “inward-facing” and “outward-facing.” Inward-facing SciComm is meant to inform and educate other scientists. It, as they write, includes grants, peer-reviewed scientific articles, and oral presentations at conferences. This type of work is what people, including scientists, typically think of when they think of what a scientist does. Inward-facing work is also what is generally taught in science training programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“Outward-Facing” SciComm Is Meant for a General Audience

While inward-facing science has gotten extensive treatment, public-facing SciComm–what the authors call “outward-facing” SciComm–is rarely taught in undergraduate and graduate programs. Outward-facing SciComm, involves working with nonscientists and scientists outside of one’s field. The goal of outward-facing SciComm is to distribute research to a wide audience and help diversify and broaden scientific discourse with other academics in different fields. The book covers many different types of outward-facing SciComm, including: writing blogs and press releases; talking to the media; creating an internet presence; and advocating for science when talking to policymakers.

Scientists Use Both Inward-Facing and Outward-Facing SciComm

Importantly, as the authors discuss, both inward- and outward-facing science is needed to be effective as a scientist. For example, one example of outward-facing science that is useful in interdisciplinary work is the ability to communicate one’s scientific research to another scientist in a different field that may be working on your topic from a different, but complementary, perspective. Therefore, both inward-facing and outward-facing science is used by scientists in the normal course of their research.

Both inward-facing and outward-facing #SciComm are foundational to successful science.

Of course, SciComm professionals use outward-facing SciComm every day, whether it’s explaining how the COVID-19 vaccines work, giving a presentation to a general audience about science, or speaking to the media (or writing a science journalism article) about a scientific story or concept.

SciComm Is Part of Science

I have talked to a few people who believe that what we typically consider to be “SciComm” should be its own job rather than scientists’ responsibility. Scientists spend way too much time doing the actual science, they say–others should be tasked with communicating it to the public.

While I understand this viewpoint, it is based on an incomplete definition of what SciComm is and what it isn’t. As I’ve just discussed, SciComm is a complex activity with many different stakeholders – scientists (both within one’s field and outside of it), the public, mass media, policymakers, and so on. As a result, this perspective discounts the amount of SciComm scientists perform on a daily basis. Though scientists may be writing grants and academic papers often, they also teach students who are not experts in the field, and may engage in outreach activities or talk to the media. Even tweeting about one’s research can be considered SciComm.

I like this textbook’s approach to SciComm because it reiterates that anyone who is a practitioner of science engages in some form of SciComm. It is foundational to successful science.

Despite Scientists Lack of Formal Training in Outward-Facing SciComm, It Is Important

While I’m not an academic scientist, I found value in the inward-facing SciComm tips contained in this book — things like how to prepare for a conference presentation, down to dealing with nerves. What I really loved about this book, though, was the fact that it discussed outward-facing SciComm in detail. Outward-facing SciComm skills may be developed from volunteering–teaching science classes to K-12 students, for example–but they are not a standard part of the science curriculum. As I just mentioned, members of the scientific community may not recognize them as being foundational to science. Sadly, that approach leads to information silos and even poor science literacy among the general public. That’s where this SciComm textbook stands out. It provides a helpful primer to all aspects of outward-facing SciComm, including outreach and public engagement, how to talk to the media about science, establishing a web presence, and effective science policy.

While scientists typically gain experience on how to write grants and academic publications over the course of their training, they do not learn how to do outward-facing SciComm. This disconnect can mean that people outside of the scientist’s field may not be able to understand a researcher’s work or why it is significant. Another challenge as a scientist is that most research programs in the United States are federally-funded. So, it is important to engage lawmakers and rally support for science via science advocacy. However, most scientists have no formal training in how to do any of that. That’s because graduate programs have no impetus to offer outward-facing SciComm classes or coursework to their students.

The Truth Is, Scientists Are Practitioners of Many Different Kinds of SciComm

Anyone who is involved in SciComm knows that, while all SciComm is geared toward understanding and appreciation of science, it’s important to consider your audience. As SciComm professionals, we might be explaining science to the general public, other scientists, scientists in a different field, policymakers, or members of one’s local community. Whether talking to your fellow scientists or people who have no science background, one must ensure that their communications have the level of nuance needed to achieve understanding. For scientists talking to other scientists, this can be easy, but when scientists are talking to the general public or mass media, this can be a challenge.

Without effective communication skills, both inward-facing or outward-facing, science cannot have a real impact. Knowing how to communicate something is just as important as what you know.

What Else Can You Find in This Book?

Scientists often seek to debunk misinformation via social media. One issue scientists frequently encounter on social media is miscommunication and the spread of misinformation, as well as “trolling.” The book provides tips on how to deal with all of these issues.

The book concludes with a discussion of other essential skills such as time management, networking, teamwork, integrity, and promoting diversity. These skills are important both in the laboratory and in SciComm. As the authors write, scientists have an obligation to “recognise and correct our mistakes, and create an inclusive environment for others.”

SciComm Is a Transferrable Skill

Many scientists and graduate students complain that they have no transferable skills and feel stuck in academia, when the truth is that, beyond their scientific and technical prowess, they have developed several different types of skills over the course of their training. Communication skills, in particular, are highly sought after by employers of all kinds. I like that this book emphasizes the utility of a science background and science education, and offers practical advice for people seeking to take their science outside of the academic realm. After reading this book, I recommend that science training programs (e.g. undergraduate and graduate science programs at universities) use this book as a resource in discussing SciComm.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and found it helpful, and will be returning to it as a go-to reference on SciComm.

Book: Effective Science Communication (Second Edition): A practical guide to surviving as a scientist, by Sam Illingworth and Grant Allen.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Effective Science Communication (Second Edition)

  1. “Without effective communication skills, both inward-facing or outward-facing, science cannot have a real impact. Knowing how to communicate something is just as important as what you know.”

    Yes, 100%! Thanks for this review, looks like a great book!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes it is our (scientists’) job to get the general public interested in what we do. The COVID vaccine debates have made it painfully clear how important it is for people outside the lab to understand science to be able to trust it.

    Liked by 2 people

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