Scientific Communication… Why should everybody care?

Updated: Apr 10

Five to six decades back when researchers talked, citizens tuned in with regard and certainty.

Then the term “scientist” would bring more doubt and fears because of the negative impact of some of their discovery.

So, scientists stopped talking to the public, or at least the kind of scientist who could easily be marketed to the public (such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, or Jacques Cousteau) appeared less often and the less palatable, more Frankenstein-esque ones such as Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, appeared more often.

Edward Teller - The father of the "hydrogen Bomb"

On the other hand, the atomic bomb has shown the world that we've reached a point at which scientific discoveries had the potential to destroy the world.

This has put science in general into a bad light.

NB: We are talking about the public perception of these people, not about their contributions to science or the views they held.

The good news is that today scientific expertise is back in high demand, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

When your life is on the line and that you or someone for your family might be the next on the line, it is the expert you want to listen to.

If Covid-19 showed us one thing, this is that fostering research is as important as communicating it properly.

However, most of the time, scientists tend to limit their conversations to other scientists, academics, and corporates.
They are trained to disseminate their results to their peers, they are not trained to communicate their work and its implications to a wider public.

1. Scientific communication is not scientific dissemination

In communication theory, the concepts of communication and dissemination are closely related.

Put simply, communication is the bi-directional flow of information, e.g. a discussion, dissemination (lit. seed spreading) is mono-directional flow of information, e.g. a sermon.

In regards to science, research, and development, however, the above definition has shifted somewhat and is more concerned with the way the information is presented to whom rather than the directionality of its flux.

If you have ever taken part in or even led an EU-funded project you will know the drill:

At the end of the project its results have to be disseminated, i.e. written up in the form of an article and published in a journal specialised in whichever field the project was about and possibly presented at conferences as well,

And it's only fair that the results of publicly funded Research and Development (R&D) work are made available to those working in the field so as to move the entire field forward.

So far, so hoopy.

2. Effective Communication allows the right public to be engaged

The EU understood that perfectly well. As a mater of fact, the EU is set to place emphasis on the communication of the results as well as on their dissemination.

The idea behind the increased emphasis on communication is that by explaining the whats and whys of publicly funded R&D to the general public it will become apparent that the much maligned EU is actually doing beneficial work, namely by enabling Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to develop products which will be marketed worldwide, thus in turn generating wealth for all of us.

This last sentence contains 63 words and multiple concatenated subclauses. 
It thus may serve as a good example as to what communication is supposed to be not.

Far be it from us to proclaim the masses too stupid to be able to follow sentences made up of more than, say, 20 words arranged in an intricate grammatical structure.

But the inclination to read such dry and unedifying outpourings is low and rightfully so.

If you want people to listen to you, you have to grab their attention and never let it go again.

Sentences, though possibly most beautifully constructed, which are so long that at their end the reader or listener has forgotten what they started with in the first place do not keep hold of anyone's attention and imagination, safe possibly for some linguistics professors with too much time on their hands.😉

Short sentences, which address the reader/listener do that.

Short sentences which explain the (most likely quite complex) matter using comparisons and analogies do that even better.

A dog will react much better to an actual sausage than to a description of it.

To explain what they mean by communication, the EU published a short video in which Alexandra Ruete (Communication Officer at DG Research & Innovation) gives - possibly unintendedly - an example as to what dissemination is and what communication shouldn't be.

She states:

 “We've tried in the grant agreement to also make this split and be very explicit so we have different paragraphs we have in the paragraph 38.1 for the communication aspect an the paragraph 29.4 the dissemination aspect. (verbatim). 

We shall assume that she was wearing her dissemination hat rather than her communication hat.*

3. Effective scientific communication is a powerful decision making tool

The world needs more scientists who need to decipher their mastery into successful communication on worldwide concerns and anxieties.

In this time of emergency, it is basic for scientists to illuminate the public about important issues, complex problems, and new discoveries.

This information can impact how the public votes at the next election, what is discussed at the town hall meeting or community group, what causes they choose to support and where they volunteer.**

That, however, is only half the truth.

Scientists also need to communicate the way they work, the way science works.

In an eminently readable article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong rightly argues that Science is less a parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.

The article goes on to quote Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington: “People from partisan media outlets [...] use a single study as a cudgel to beat the other side.”

And that is not what good scientific communication is, it is not what science is.

Using targeted communication, scientists can also impact government decisions related to science approach, science policy and financing.

This can in turn have an important impact on scientific progress.

It is not a stretch to say that the entire fate of humanity could rest on scientists successfully communicating and collaborating to help solve the problems that are facing mankind today.

A good example of this is explain in our previous article "A vision of the world in 2040", which talked about the documentary 2040 by Damon Gameau.

Lots of relevant scientific innovations exists to make the planet a more sustainable place to live in but too few of these innovations, discoveries, and progresses are communicated to a wider audience, so they are not implemented to date!

Isn't that a pity?

4. Five rules for a good scientific communication

There are, of course, gazillions of articles entitled 'The X golden rules for good scientific communication', differing only marginally in content and the number X.

To us, the most important ones seem to be:

Rule 1: Understand your audience

Take Donald Trump as an example.

Donald Trump is far from the bumbling idiot as which he is sometimes caricatured.

He has identified his audience and he knows that this audience doesn't want long arguments, clever sounding sentences, and statesman-like poses.

His audience wants simple statements to follow.

This is why he often communicates in such a reduced way, not even bothering with grammatically complete sentences any more but instead resorts to repeated fragments such as 'Not good, not good.'

Obviously: You shouldn't sound like Trump when communicating science because if you did you couldn't communicate science.

But you have to gauge your audience's capacity for processing information right.

Rule 2: Define your key messages

Be sure of what it is you want to say.

If you have to explain your research tell your audience:
(a) what is already known,
(b) what you have done to improve the situation, and
(c) why this is important.

Rule 3: Tell a compelling story

Give your audience something it can relate to.

The curiosity that led you to your work excitement you felt when you spotted that opportunity, the satisfaction you had when your idea actually worked out in practice...

Rule 4: Use the proper channel

Of course you may stand on a step ladder at Hyde Park Corner and regal passers-by to your tales of glory.

If nothing else it will teach you how to handle hecklers.

The proper channels for disseminating science are well established: Journals, conferences, and somewhat more recently blogs and other online formats.

The latter are also the most obvious channels for the communication of science, but other formats are possible such as 'Science cafes' where scientists meet the interested public in a cafe or a pub to present their work and engage in discussion.

At this point, the advice 'Use the proper channels' becomes the question:

'How to best advertise your science communication efforts?'

Rule 5: Do not be afraid to say "I do not know"

Because of course you don't know.

If you knew it all there would be little point in conducting any research.

Conclusion: Scientific communication is powerful

When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to broader, non-specialist audiences, it builds support for science, promotes understanding for its wider relevance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels, from government to communities to individuals.
It can also make science accessible to audiences that traditionally have been excluded from the process of science. It can help make science more diverse and inclusive...

* We are positively convinced that she wasn't wearing her proofreader's hat 😀

** doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2019.00055