Why Should Scientists Practice Science Communication (SciComm)?

By Kelly Tabbutt

photo of woman sitting at a desk, writing with a pencil in a notebook
Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

COMMUNICATION IN SCIENCE

Science is integral to public knowledge and life. Communication is an integral part of science. Knowing how to communicate effectively is a primary requirement of being an effective scientist. The requirement to communicate well is not restricted to the ivory tower. The impact of science is measured beyond academic and professional realms, extending to scientific and lay audiences alike. In fact, knowing how to communicate scientific methods, limitations, and findings to the general public is arguably one of the most important skills for securing the role of science in shaping our society and individual lives and instilling public trust in science. Increasing understanding and awareness of science through effective communication is often referred to as science communication or SciComm.

Knowing how to communicate effectively is a primary requirement of being an effective scientist. The requirement to communicate well is not restricted to the ivory tower. #SciComm

BENEFITS OF SCICOMM

SciComm is beneficial to scientists, scientific fields, the general public, and social institutions. For the scientific community and the fields of science, SciComm expands the flow – and impact and utilization – of scientific information. SciComm also promotes public trust in and support for scientific research which can translate into science policy at the government level.

For science, the scientific community, and the general public, SciComm can work to break down the barriers between the ivory tower and non-scientists, increasing the power that science has within public discourses and the structure of society. Using SciComm to improve public understanding and trust in science by increasing science literacy can benefit the scientific community and the sciences by challenging understanding of scientific methods and findings, bringing in fresh perspectives, and opening up new applications of science outside of the lab.

#SciComm improves public understanding and trust in science by increasing science literacy.

SCIENTISTS & SCIENCE LITERACY

Science literacy is key to public understanding of science. It is also key to public trust in, and support of, science. Science literacy essentially means having a sufficient understanding of scientific methods and concepts to understand, including:

  • Key scientific findings, the significance of those findings, and any limitations
  • Limitations of or flaws in scientific research in general
  • Where to look to find information on aspects of science you are unfamiliar with (for example, how to find and review scientific journal articles)

Having science literacy goes beyond mere understanding of the basic components of sounds scientific research and significant research findings. You do not need to be steeped in the science literature, nor do you need to have a degree in a scientific field to have science literacy. Science literacy is more broadly about gaining the ability to critically analyze scientific research and claims. Promoting science literacy is a win-win for scientists and society; it reinforces the value of science while expanding the conversation to a broad audience.

WHY ARE SCIENTISTS’ VOICES SO IMPORTANT IN SCICOMM?

Unfortunately, trained and tested scientists are underutilized in public reporting of science, for example, in media accounts of scientific findings. This translates to a general misrepresentation and misunderstanding of scientific standards, methods, and findings which undermine not only the significance of scientific research broadly but also the significance and applicability of specific findings.

This misrepresentation and misunderstanding is at best unintentional and at worst a means of sensationalizing. It can occur in the form of overstating the meaning or application of trivial, moderate, or inconclusive findings to make the sound urgent, or understating important findings to make them seem insignificant. Either way, misrepresenting scientific research undermines the scientific standards of validity and can decrease public trust in science.

This is where scientists become vital in the public discourse on science and scientific findings. The role of scientists and SciComm in public discourse on science extends beyond simply restating research findings. SciComm is about promoting science literacy, confronting – and clearing up – misconceptions, and challenging the broad public to think critically and rationally about the information they are presented.

WHAT SCIENTISTS BRING TO THE TABLE

There are many skills and perspectives that are gained through training and practice as a scientist that are integral to science literacy – and critical thinking generally.

While you don’t need to have a science degree to have functional science literacy, teaching science literacy is best carried out by those in the sciences. There are many skills and perspectives that are gained through training and practice as a scientist that are integral to science literacy – and critical thinking generally.

Science literacy is not only about understanding the information presented to you, but to understand what information – and methods of collecting information – are considered legitimate and valid. Key to this is understanding the significance of the peer-review process. Peer reviews are about ensuring that the methods and findings published represent the highest standards of scientific validity and do not misrepresent previous research or current findings.

Those trained in the sciences are also knowledgeable in specific research methods and the general standards of scientific methods. In this way, scientists are positioned to challenge the validity and find the “fatal flaws” which undermine the legitimacy of research. They are also positioned to teach the public about these methods and unpack the complexities of these methods to the general public.

INWARD VERSUS OUTWARD SCICOMM

As previously stated, communication is a key aspect of learning and practicing science. There are two basic types of SciComm, as discussed in Effective Science Communication, Second Edition. Inward-facing SciComm is intended for the scientific community. This type of SciComm includes academic and other professional writing, teaching, and presentations. The audience for this form of SciComm is those who are knowledgeable in a particular scientific field and subfield.

On the other hand, outward-facing SciComm is intended for the lay audience and scientists in other fields or subfields. This type of SciComm can include formal or informal writing, teaching, and presentations. This type of SciComm is far broader and can include anything from a passing conversation with a stranger to speaking to the media or presenting about research to a lay audience. The audience for this form of SciComm is thus those who are likely not versed in the literature and methods.

SCIENTISTS’ VIEWS ARE IMPORTANT

Scientists can participate in the large public discourse on science to stay connected to the value of their work in the real world and the role that they play in society at large.

Scientists’ views are important. This importance extends beyond the ivory tower. Science is an integral part of modern life and especially in the digital age, scientific information is abundantly available to the general public. Scientists need to be part of this public discourse around science. Scientists can participate in the large public discourse on science to stay connected to the value of their work in the real world and the role that they play in society at large. By participating in this conversation, scientists also have the opportunity to challenge and clear up misinformation.

Further, scientists who join the public science discourse can play an important role in shaping public science policy both within and outside of Capitol Hill. Scientists can use their knowledge and status to speak out about important issues to the media, garnering understanding and support, they can lobby politicians, and they can reach lay audiences of voters to explain what is at stake. When scientists speak out about the importance of sound scientific research and science literacy they are not only empowering themselves and the scientific community, they are offering the empowerment that accompanies knowledge to the general public.

You can also follow @SciCommClub on Twitter and participate in #SciCommChat to improve your SciComm skills.

Watch a video version of this blog post, narrated by our Sheeva Azma, below, or by clicking here.

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