Book Review: Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Do not rush out and buy this book. At least not just yet.

This resource is part report and part book and was released in hardcover form just two weeks ago. It aims to fix a common but important problem. As a wise man once said to me “There are usually only two reasons why someone doesn’t do something – they never wanted to do it in the first place, or they were never shown how to do it.”

Unfortunately for many scientists they are being told to get out and communicate publicly about their findings and about their areas of expertise. Of course, most of them get very little training on how to do this effectively – even the ones that want to do it.

To help solve this problem the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have released a useful summary of the best ways to communicate science. Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda is a highly credible, research based primer that every scientist should read if they are not getting the training they need to talk about their work.

Improbably this goes way beyond the information deficit model of behaviour change – a model that assumes that people just need to know about the facts and will be persuaded. Here is a very good example of a scientist communicating in this way, and also very effectively targeting his messages to different audiences.


Neuroscientist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels... by wired

This might have worked for scientists in the past when dealing with curious and willing audiences such as school groups, but doesn’t help with today’s challenges of internet publishing, political polarisation and the seemingly increasing problem of people choosing to live in a post-truth world.

And I certainly have some sympathy for scientists here - throughout their lives they were probably always curious to find out more information but where an audience is presented with contradictory information effective science communication needs to become much more persuasive. Like it or not, there is very little point developing new knowledge if no-one is going to act on it.

The authors make this point quite effectively:

"As we discovered, effective science communication – including listening to and engaging with audiences – is particularly complex, and far from simple to study. It’s highly dependent on what is being communicated, its relevance to who’s participating in the conversation and the social and media dynamic around the issues being addressed (especially if those issues or their policy implications are contentious). But it also depends on what people feel and believe is right and the societal or political contexts within which communication and engagement occur. And this makes getting it right and deriving lessons that can be applied across issues and contexts particularly challenging." http://theconversation.com/what-does-research-say-about-how-to-effectively-communicate-about-science-70244

The other obvious problem is that the Information Deficit Model does not explicitly encourage communicators to focus on changing behaviours - which should be the focus of any communications effort, but particularly when dealing with "important life decisions about vaccinating their children and other medical care, the safety of foods, and what to do about climate change" (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017 p.1).

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda attempts to round up all the relevant science about science communication to solve this problem. They took a multidisciplinary approach, with their editorial team consisting of academics from the fields of communication science, psychology, public policy and environmental science.

The resulting literature review is impressive. While the authors focus on science communication, communication science scholars will find all the scientific data and approaches to effective communication have been summarised including:

  • Message targeting for different audiences
  • The role of heuristics and information processing
  • Debunking misinformation
  • Framing and
  • Social media, just to name a few.

Usefully - they authors also point out where there is insufficient science in communication, hence the "a research agenda" part of the title. For example, the authors rightly lament the lack of research conducted in "real world conditions" (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017 p.87). By identifying these information gaps, hopefully communication science researchers can hone their efforts in a bid to help science communicators, particularly with persuasion efforts.

However the book goes further than just discussing research - it gives fairly practical but science based guidance on difficult issues like "Communicating science in a complex, dynamic and competitive media environment", "How journalistic decisions affect science coverage and audiences", and "communicating uncertainty and consensus amid controversy".

And it carefully explains why scientists need to engage stakeholders and audiences much more effectively - and the risks if they don't.

This book is probably of most use to early career science communicators or practising scientists who have been asked to help persuade non-scientists.

So why shouldn't you rush out and buy it? This book is entirely free. Go and download it now. All you'll need is to register your details and its yours to keep.

But if you like the downloaded version please do consider buying a copy as I've done. Its only $48 USD and its a great resource if you've been told to communicate your science but you don't really know how.

So go forth and get better at persuading.

References

  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:https://doi.org/10.17226/23674.