Why Science Communication is an Essential Skill in 2017

The following is an excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

The landscape in which science communication takes place is changing. Information spreads faster. It’s easier for a finding to become distorted. If a finding proves controversial, opposition can spring up in a flash. Scientists may get questions or criticisms via social media. They may discover bloggers they’ve never spoken with are writing about their work with varying levels of accuracy.

The alternative may be just as dire. Imagine unveiling your findings to utter silence. No citations. No media coverage. No reactions. Now imagine watching a colleague achieve all of those things, due to their ability to engage an audience and articulate the value of their work.

Communication is at the heart of many of the biggest challenges facing scientists today. Being able to articulate your work to a broad audience can have a tremendous impact on the discoverability of your research and the trajectory of your career. “Can you explain this topic to your mom? Your senator? If so, you have an automatic boost to your research,” says Cynthia Burrows, Editor-in-Chief of Accounts of Chemical Research.

But science communication isn’t just about you. It’s about the future of science.

Researchers’ ability to explain their work and its importance will influence what kinds of projects are funded. Researchers’ testimony can affect the kinds of laws and regulations put in place. Most importantly, being able to explain the impact of your research can help shape the public perception of science and even change people’s lives. “We, as scientists, need to address this issue and become better at framing the importance of scientific research in the modern world,” says Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Merz.

The best practices around science communication have evolved. It’s not just about sharing information and correcting erroneous beliefs. The psychology of skepticism is complex. Exposing a person to new information may do little to weaken their resolve and can even strengthen their opposition.

Instead, scientists need to demonstrate their competency, but also show warmth. Scientists are often ranked highly for the first trait, but not the second, which can limit their ability to influence others. Whether talking to reporters or to the general public, scientists must be aware of their audience’s perspective. Scientists tend to have specialized knowledge and a rigorous focus on research details that their audience most likely does not share. They must find ways to bridge the gap between those worldviews.

This requires finding a balance between explaining research in an accessible way and running the risk of sensationalizing or otherwise distorting research. It also requires not resorting to a paternalistic attitude. Many of the best practices of science communication are easy to understand. Avoid jargon. Talk about why a finding matters, rather than the methodology used. Put research in context. But the application of these ideas is nuanced and can only be mastered with practice. Which terms count as jargon? The answer may well depend on the audience.

By engaging a variety of different audiences on a regular basis, scientists can learn to calibrate their explanations. Not only should scientists seek out venues for informal science communication, they should evaluate their performance so that they can refine their approaches. Science communication, much like scientific research, may require much trial and error before a breakthrough is made.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.