Toward an equitable and inclusive science communication landscape
by Kelly Montgomery | June 16th, 2021
As scientists push to reach broader audiences and better communicate the science behind their leading technologies, there has been an uptick in the market supporting the emerging business of scientific communication. Organizations are coming to realize that effective communication between companies and their stakeholders, including investors, policymakers, and the general public is critical to their success – as both public and regulatory approval are essential to the integration and commercialization of new technologies. Thus, science communication stands as an exciting and creative field with the capacity to revolutionize how scientists engage with non-scientists and influence public opinions. Scientists, however, face unique challenges when promoting their research content to diverse audiences in order to ensure accessibility, engagement, and accuracy. As the need for quality scientific communication sources surges, scientists will have to adapt many it’s outdated communication strategies to meet the needs of diverse consumer populations.
The business of science communication: science’s next frontier.
Science communication for the life science industry is a burgeoning business; many fields and subfields have developed in response to an increased need for quality and trustworthy scientific conveyance. Defined roles including medical liaisons, science journalists, scientific illustrators, public relations officers, journal editors, scientific consultants, and most recently science bloggers and podcasters have become coveted careers, because they are considered creative and engaging. Individuals working in this sector are meeting a specific demand in biotechnology, which is to introduce clever and thoughtful approaches to overcome the classical challenges and assumptions guiding scientific communication. Corporations understand that this need will be rectified only by innovators solely focused on achieving this task.
As such, investment in biocommunications startups is on the rise, and firms are making hefty investments in the science communication arms of biotechnology organizations. Several companies have recently secured funding or have invested in strengthening their communications efforts. For instance, DrawScience focuses on creating Digital Object Identifier, or DOI-assigned illustrations and infographics linked to published data to encourage non-scientists’ participation in STEM research. Verge Scientific Communication is a brand strategy and public relations firm based in DC that emphasizes the “science of storytelling.” SciComm Services Inc. is a full-service consulting firm that develops and deploys accessible content to convey scientific research to non-scientific audiences. Steam Hub is a networking accelerator dedicated to initiating collaborations between startups, businesses, and science communicators to foster impactful scientific communication. A host of other well-known corporations have defined explicit roles for community outreach, scientific marketing, and social media engagement. Whether it’s in-house or outsourced, companies are investing in resources to ensure they achieve their communication goals. The recent boom of science communication roles alone shows just how pressing innovation and creativity in sci-comm truly is. Ensuring scientific accessibility and accuracy via diversified communication approaches to meet consumer needs is crucial to increasing public engagement in STEM and ensuring the successful integration of novel technologies.
A brief history of scientific communication: three pedagogies
To contextualize the rapid growth of this market, it’s important to understand the historical underpinnings of contemporary science communication. Rooted in 17th-century dogma, science communication has favored a one-way transmission of information from experts to the public, largely disregarding the needs of non-scientists. Since the publication of the first academic journal, Des Sçavans, in 1665, the precedent for scientific exclusivity was established, as journals remain the primary and preferred means through which science is communicated by academics and industrial experts, alike. Riddled with inaccessible jargon, complex figures, and shielded behind expensive pay-walls, it’s clear that non-scientists aren’t thoughtfully considered when disseminating technical information. This top-down communicative approach to sci-comm is termed the deficit approach, and it has garnered a great deal of scrutiny for obvious reasons. As the name suggests, the deficit approach fails to meet consumer needs and offers little to no support for non-scientists who wish to meaningfully engage with the moral, ethical, and technical applications of new scientific discoveries.
Considering this history, it may appear that scientists lack a desire to change how they communicate. But, perhaps defaulting to “doing what we know how to do well” is less of an insensitivity to community needs, or an aversion to the amendment of sci-comm practices, rather a lack of creativity and understanding of how to effectively do so. Critiques of the deficit model has motivated the creation of two additional pedagogies intended to actively amend the errors of the past. These pedagogies are collectively termed public participation paradigms, differing mainly in the aims and preferred outlet of each methodology. Both, however, emphasize fluidity and inclusivity to effectively meet consumer needs. They also promote a purposeful two-way dialogue, in which scientists are engaged with the community and the community has an implicit influence on informing scientific practice and policy. For this narrative, they’ll be termed the collaborative and integrative approaches. The collaborative approach favors scientific information that’s disseminated via formal educational settings, with curricula adapted to specific social contexts. The integrative approach builds upon the collaborative methodology by further integrating public participation via mass media. This approach transfers greater ownership to the community by encouraging non-scientists to express exactly what information they want to have communicated.
Tremendous headway in improving the accessibility of scientific communication has been made as scientific institutions shift away from the deficit model to incorporate other comprehensive communication strategies. However, this shift is not without obstacles, while the market expands to facilitate growth, the field is ripe with challenges that necessitate persistent innovation and modernization.
The challenges of scientific communication.
Scientific communication poses many challenges that complicate generalizable strategies intended to meet consumer needs. In part, this is because there is not a single audience for scientific information; therefore, the societal contexts surrounding different scientific issues varies. Many variables contribute to the difference in people’s understanding of science, including personal considerations, such as formal education and political ideology, to societal level influences such as widespread anti-intellectualism, media influence, and varying degrees of public confidence in scientists. Because segments of the population are less likely to be receptive to novel technologies, communication approaches need to meet the needs of diverse demographics. This includes research to investigate effective ways of framing or reframing scientific issues that address the needs and concerns of particular populations, while also having a fundamental understanding of when and how reframing should be achieved.
Furthermore, it’s necessary to establish a healthy and balanced science culture. This requires a culturally and mutually respectful relationship between scientists and the general public. In part, this can be achieved by understanding and acknowledging the historical context of societal mistrust. This is a good place to start to rebuild bonds between scientists and the public. For instance, black Americans and other POC are less likely to believe that scientists act on behalf of the public good. Combatting this type of mistrust requires explicitly addressing the pitfalls of the past, including transparency about how clinical trials or other experiments are run. Most importantly, this requires minimizing technicality while maintaining accuracy to mitigate barriers of scientific participation.
Further distancing from the deficit approach and stepping out of the safety of the lab to be more proactive with the community is essential to building public trust. In doing so, it requires open and honest communication streams. As scientists communicate with the public, it’s necessary to do so with limited biases and assumptions about perceptions of what the public needs. Many of the major challenges of scientific communication are rooted in underlying assumptions that stifle growth. Understanding and challenging these assumptions is essential to eventually achieve communication strategies that meet diverse consumer needs.
Challenging the assumptions influencing scientific communication: A call to action
Several challenges can arise when communicating with non-scientists. Following are some of the pressing assumptions that reinforce unproductive scientific communication practices and have inadvertently helped shape debates about “scientific literacy” and the “public understanding of science”. The silver lining, however, is the apparent opportunity for growth and creativity that these challenges present for individuals and corporations to establish or build their niche in this market.
“Getting the word out” is sufficient for communicating the scope of leading technologies.
Getting the word out is a derivative of the deficit model which assumes the public is ignorant of science, and this ignorance underscores society’s refusal to accept new technologies. The public’s perceived knowledge deficit, however, cannot be remedied by one-sided transmission from scientists to citizens. This approach lacks intentional forethought and often excludes the interests of the public. Communication stumbles when it’s driven by an assumed information deficit, or assuming scientists innately know what the public needs. Experts with specialized information are prone to this misstep, believing that because the information that they possess is valuable, simply sharing it will rectify gaps in understanding and alleviate the disconnect between scientists and non-scientists.
Communicating science, however, is more than the publicization of new tools and technologies. Effective scientific communication requires intentional forethought to understand the needs of an audience. For instance, one should explicitly consider how and why sharing specific scientific information will benefit listeners. Furthermore, one can ask themselves who external to their company or organization needs the information and how sharing that information befits the intended audience before inconsiderately presenting technical information to a non-scientific audience.
Experts inherently know how to communicate with the public.
Scientists possess highly specific technical information that can be challenging to distill to less technical audiences. For many, the omission of what seems like essential detail might seem unfathomable; however, it’s often detrimental to effective communication. Those who fail to adapt to their audience unknowingly perpetuate the notion that scientists innately know what information non-scientists need to engage in scientific discourse. Successful communication causes change, therefore, fundamental knowledge of what an audience needs is necessary to meet the needs of the non-scientist community. “You always have to consider who you are presenting information to”, says Pallavi, a member of the Element Scientific Communications team at Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm. Pallavi is a science communicator who works with healthcare clients on their various communications needs. She says, “when reaching specific audiences, you have to think about how to capture their attention, while also presenting the message in a way that’s incredibly clear”. Therefore, “you have to know what your key messages are and never let that out of your sight – but make them come alive in a way that’s meaningful.”. Her ultimate takeaway is that “audience is master when considering science communication.” Pallavi’s message reinforces that there is not a standard way to communicate, rather you have to adapt to the needs of your audience.
Approaches to mitigate this bias can include doing unbiased market research to understand what information and concerns stakeholders (investors, policymakers, and the general public) have. Moreover, it’s important to understand that science communication is best understood as an evolving process that changes as the needs of the community change. At an academic and corporate level, poor communication could be alleviated by investing in teaching researchers and scientists how to communicate and subsequently incentivize science communication practices. Assigning value to communication efforts could involve the consideration of an established track record of outreach and sci-comm efforts for scientists on promotion and tenure tracks in place of lengthy publication records. Moreover, an emphasis could be placed on internal and external opportunities that specialize in teaching researchers to communicate more effectively. Scientists are trained to be rational thinkers, but very few receive proper training as scientific communicators, explicit training in this area would be a huge benefit in academic and industrial settings.
Recipients of information will consider it thoughtfully.
Individuals have specific value considerations; that is, people will receive information filtered through the lens of personal beliefs and apply those personal beliefs to understanding what is presented. Therefore, it is not fruitful to assume that because the information is presented to an audience, recipients of this information will comprehensively consider the social and societal implications, risks, and benefits or ultimately understand the information in the way an expert intended to convey. Individuals might perceive the information presented by experts as threatening to their social identities and become less willing to accept information from experts. Science is innately intimate as it relates to different human values. Therefore, moral and ethical implications can’t be separated from scientific practice or presentation, nor should the information be vague, leaving space for improper interpretation. Given that cognitive values affect scientific rationality, what scientists communicate needs to be as explicit as possible without compromising the accuracy and scope of new technologies. This is especially important due to the number of competing resources available to learners. If a message is not both explicit and accurate, learners may lean toward a source that aligns with their established principles or opinions, as opposed to information rooted in empirical evidence.
Good science communicates itself.
The way science is visualized for public consumption is very important. Good data is a scientist’s dream, however, even the most elegantly presented data is not guaranteed to influence an audience. This rhetoric, which assumes a presentation of facts, figures, and technical information is enough to persuade or educate an audience allows scientists to defer their responsibility in thoughtfully sharing the value and implications of their work with the public. Perhaps it is important to consider the role of a scientist at the individual, academic, and corporate levels to identify the needs of the community and share the ethical, social, and health implications of new and emerging research areas. Shifting to the use of visual or intentional design-based images can bring complex scientific processes and the invisible world of scientific phenomena to light. The use of photographs, illustrations, and animations can be exciting opportunities to communicate abstract scientific ideas while also inspiring new ways of learning.
All and all, those who desire to be practitioners of effective scientific communication should thoughtfully consider these assumptions and resist perpetuating cyclic ideologies that are harmful to scientific progress and further exclude community participation. Actively choosing to be an inclusive communicator presents novel opportunities to redefine how science is shared, experienced, and received in diverse settings.
Reimagining the media’s orientation of the scientific profession.
With the nation increasingly curious about how leading technologies work, and wanting more insight from experts, this is an opportune time for scientists to rebrand. Social media platforms could be just the creative approach that science communicators are looking for. Traditional forms of media utilized by scientists- such as print journalism- are one-way in nature and disseminate messages from a single point to an intended audience. Social media and digital marketing is an exciting opportunity for scientists to move away from the first-generation approach to sci-comm to develop a more direct and interactive communication line with the public. Moreover, it’s an excellent opportunity to redefine exactly what science is and what scientists do on their terms.
People’s social networks are known to affect their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors; therefore, social media outlets have significant advantages in shaping public opinions. In recent years, science and media have become increasingly interconnected and such outlets have rapidly become a major purveyor of scientific information. The ever-evolving scientific media landscape has made it possible to disseminate scientific information without the filter of a traditional gatekeeper, which has proven to be have both beneficial and detrimental qualities, especially concerning the rise of misinformation and other scientific propaganda. As scientists engage the media space, there is a lot to consider ensuring accurate messaging does not fall to the wayside. People are faced with increased challenges of integrating scientific information with their values and other moral and ethical considerations to make life decisions that impact them and their families. Whether it’s the decision to receive vaccinations, their comfort with the scope of gene editing technology, or their stance on the heated debates surrounding climate change, precision and accuracy will undoubtedly suffer if community concerns aren’t explicitly addressed in the messaging. Moreover, science is becoming increasingly politicized. Party polarization functions as an impediment to impartial scientific communication and deliberate efforts to undermine trust in science are an unfortunate reality.
Increasing scientific visibility in the social sphere can look differently for individual, academic and corporate sectors. For individual impact, community engagement can be as simple as micro-blogging using Twitter or sharing illustrations of their science via Instagram. At the institutional and corporate levels, it often involves investing in science communication sectors. Since the ‘70’s there has been a progressive push to do just this in popular media, with the erection of the “visible scientist“. Social media has provided a platform for prominent science figures such as Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson who’ve amassed a significant social following, and because of their sustained prominence in various forms of mass media, have been able to reshape public opinions of science. Because the media is central to modern politics, the impact of visible scientists on policymaking is significant. Broadly, these approaches eliminate the elusiveness of what scientists look like and minimizes distance between them and the public. Digital media is a promising avenue for making scientific findings more accessible, transparent, engaging, and equitable. Doubling down on this type of model can be effective, with the integration of more diverse faces and types of science. The downside to these approaches, however, is the fragmented and non-integrated nature of social media, which can make continuity difficult, as delivering information in fragments can hinder one’s ability to tell a comprehensive story. Nevertheless, social streams have permitted scientific knowledge to be shared at unprecedented rates, enabling widespread access to scientific information, bolstering public engagement, transparency, and accessibility.
What’s next for science communication?
Public perception of the civic role of scientific knowledge is nuanced, contributing to the challenges of scientific communication. Improved sci-comm practices undoubtedly are beneficial for all societal players; they allow citizens to make informed decisions, help in public decision making, and help companies achieve their goals of introducing new technologies into the market. Despite the nuances and challenges of establishing new expressions of sci-comm, the future of the field is bright. Organizations and individuals are poised to implement and execute creative and innovative strategies to establish novel approaches to engage with diverse populations. For instance, through the creation of effective evidence-based strategies to combat misinformation or through clever tactics to introduce research to the community without sacrificing accuracy and ensuring accessibility.
As this subfield blossoms and additional communication approaches emerge, sci-comm will surely benefit as scientists come to understand the complexity of their role as it exists in public discourse. Although scientists are experts in their field and possess the fundamental knowledge concerning the ethical and practical applications of technologies, ineffective communication can raise complex ethical, legal, and social questions. The purpose of sci-comm is not only to ensure scientists disseminate information to the public, but to also learn to effectively address the questions that the public has. As the scientific community continues to shift away from top-down information transfer, scientists are collectively moving in a direction that better acknowledges how personal beliefs influence the understanding of new technologies. As the field develops and scientists align their communication goals and objectives with the appropriate revised strategies, greater public interaction and engagement appears to be a plausible and favorable outcome.
Kelly Montgomery is a PhD candidate in Chemistry and Chemical Biology at UCSF studying tau protein aggregation.