What is science communication and why does it matter? During the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Washington D.C., seven speakers came together at Busboys & Poets to discuss effective ways of communicating science to the public. The speakers included
- Jordan Axelson, Ph.D., Mass Media Fellow, AAAS; Lecturer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Matt Davenport, Ph.D., Associate Editor, Chemical & Engineering News; Cohost, “Speaking of Chemistry”
- Adam Dylewski, Manager, ACS Productions, External Affairs & Communications, Office of the Secretary and General Counsel, American Chemical Society
- Erika Gebel Berg, Ph.D., Science, Health and Medical Writer, American Diabetes Association
- Lauren Lipuma, Public Information Specialist and Writer, American Geophysical Union; President, D.C. Science Writers’ Association
- Rebecca Trager, US Correspondent, Chemistry World
- Christopher Yarosh, Ph.D., Science Policy Fellow, American Chemical Society
Together, these policy fellows and science journalists gave tips on how to explain your research to members of the public.
We asked our panelists key questions about science communication. Here are some of their insights:
How do you define science communication and why is it important from a policy perspective?
Chris Yarosh: Science communication is sharing information about who scientists are, what we do, and why it matters in a relatable way. Support for research and the smart use of science in policy requires teaming with policymakers and the public. Science communication builds the bridges that make that vital teamwork possible.
For a person interested in a career in science communication, what steps do you recommend they take to get involved, gain experience, and build their network?
Lauren Lipuma: Get any writing/multimedia/social media experience you can to build your portfolio, even if you don’t get paid for it, and even if it’s not specific to science. You’ll be a valuable asset if you can prove you can communicate in a variety of media. You could offer to volunteer for a non-profit or small company that can’t afford to hire a full-time communicator. Also, join any local or national science writing societies, such as the National Association of Science Writers or the DC Science Writers Association. These societies hold events where you can meet other science writers who can give you advice and a heads up about potential job openings. They also tend to have workshops and events geared toward professional development, so you’ll be able to hone your science communication skills.
How can researchers make sure they are communicating clearly and effectively to journalists when talking about their science?
Jordan Axelson: Before the interview, determine the main points or big picture that you want the journalist to know by the end of the interview, and do your best to hit on those points during the conversation. Use simple and concise explanations, and avoid jargon. If you need to convey something complicated, offer anecdotes, analogies, or metaphors to help them understand the topic that you study. If you can give them appropriate ways and words to explain your research to their audience, then they won’t have to come up with their own. At the end of the interview, welcome the journalist to give you a quick call or send you an email with any clarifications or follow-up questions they may have. They will appreciate the invitation!
When communicating to the public, how do you address scientific skepticism and “fake news?”
Erika Gebel Berg: First, I like to acknowledge that it’s ok to question science—any good scientist has a skeptical streak. We all need to be aware that scientific fraud exists and that some scientific theories, once commonly accepted, have been replaced by other theories as novel evidence emerges. However, I also like to emphasize that the scientific method is sound, and has brought humanity an incredible wealth of knowledge, medical breakthroughs, and technological advances. I encourage people to be equal opportunity skeptics—don’t stop at questioning mainstream science. Ask yourself what might the purveyors of “news” about the dangers of chemistry or the miraculous benefits of a natural product have to gain? Are they selling something? How was the data acquired and has it been verified? Don’t stop asking questions, just remember to spread them around fairly.
Learn more about science communication with ACS on Campus.