By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management
To succeed as a scientist, you not only need to be well-trained in the scientific method, but also be familiar with the standards and practices in your discipline. While many scientists are skilled in the production of scientific information, fewer are as well-prepared to disseminate and communicate that information to diverse audiences. As a graduate student, learning effective science communication is one of my top priorities because I believe scientific information can and should be accessible to everyone. As I’ve been building and expanding upon my own communication toolbox, I constantly ask myself, what is effective science communication?
Simply put, communication can be thought of as the two-way transfer of information and knowledge. On one side, information is broadcasted and amplified out into the world, and on the other side, that information is received and understood, ideally. If communicating were this easy, people would never have to worry about being misinterpreted. Yet, this ideal is far from reality, and information is oftentimes misconstrued and/or ignored. This scenario is quite common when scientists communicate technical concepts or findings to non-scientists, either due to differences in communication styles or terminology use. In connecting with these types of audiences, I think effective science communication is a function of three key qualities: intentionality, creativity, and knowledge.
When scientists communicate information, being intentional with what they say and when they say it, can greatly influence how messages resonate with their audience. There’s often a big disconnect between the very specific scientific terms scientists use and the terms their non-technical audiences use. One way scientists can bridge this disconnect and be more intentional (thoughtful), is with word-choice. When scientists change their words, this doesn’t mean they “dumb down” their presentations; rather, they substitute words to better explain concepts in terms the audience easily understands. For example, if I tell the public “I’m predicting sea otter populations at carrying capacity in Oregon using a Bayesian habitat model”, this sentence has three jargon words (carrying capacity, Bayesian, model) that likely mean nothing to this audience. Instead, what I say is, “I’m predicting how many sea otters could live in Oregon based on available habitat”. Now I’m speaking in terms that resonate with my audience, and I have effectively made the same point. An intentional science communicator knows how to deliver information to meet their audience’s ability to take in and process that information.
Scientists typically follow structured and defensible protocols when conducting analyses. Far fewer standards apply to how they communicate that research, which can free them up to be more creative in their delivery. One way scientists can be both intentional and creative is by using analogies, examples, or metaphors. When I give talks, I always talk about the high metabolism of sea otters (30% of their own body weight in food, daily) (Costa 1978, Riedman & Estes 1990). Most researchers seem intrigued by this fact, but anyone younger than the age of 10, honestly, could care less. To catch their attention, I always follow up this fact by estimating how many pizza slices I would need to eat to reach that daily food requirement, based on my own weight (230 pizza slices, if you’re curious). By using this analogy, my young audience not only understands my point, but they’re now way more interested because they can’t fathom a human eating that much pizza. It’s a simple comparison, but effective.
Creativity can also be applied to the different ways scientific information is delivered. Scientists regularly publish their work in peer-review scientific journals to reach other scientists. But they also produce short reports and fact sheets to briefly summarize studies for managers or policy-makers. They hold events or workshops to engage stakeholders. They use blogs, webpages, and YouTube to reach the broader public. They even use Twitter to share papers! Scientists do so much more than just publishing their work, and they have several options for delivering and communicating their research. All these different options create more opportunities for scientists to experiment and find new and exciting ways to deliver their science.
It’s important for scientists to be knowledgeable about their subjects when communicating, but they can’t know everything. Rather, I think a more reasonable goal is for scientists to be comfortable and prepared to say what they know and what they don’t know. Scientists have a thirst for knowledge, but some communicate false information because they have a drive to answer every question they’re asked. They can sometimes get into trouble when they’re asked to talk about something they’re less familiar with. When asked a difficult question, I’ve witnessed a lot of scientists say, “I don’t know”, or, “I don’t know, but I could speculate [insert answer] based on other information”. This response allows them to answer the question, while also being truthful. The alternative could have real negative implications (e.g. a certain President spreading false information about a dangerous hurricane).
Aside from factual knowledge, contextual knowledge is underappreciated in science communication, but can be vitally important. Some management issues are politically contentious, and effective science communicators can play vital roles in those management processes or actions. One study found that by scientists engaging with stakeholders in the planning process for renewable energy development along the coast of Maine, community members felt the development planning process was being conducted in the most effective manner (Johnson et al. 2015). In this example, a seemingly contentious situation was defused because scientists understood the political and social landscape, and were able to carefully communicate with stakeholders before any management actions took place. Scientists are not required to engage with stakeholders to this degree, but being sensitive to the broader (political, social, cultural, economic) environment in which those stakeholders live and operate can help them better target your messages and relieve potential tension.
These three qualities (intentionality, creativity, and knowledge) are not meant to serve as hard, fast science communication rules. Instead, these are simply some qualities I’ve observed in other scientists skilled in effective communication. Scientists don’t automatically enter this space as expert communicators. For those that are great at it, it probably took some time and practice to hone their skills and find their own voice. It might come more naturally to some scientists, but I would argue most – like myself – have to work really hard to develop those skills. As I progress through my career, I’m excited to develop my own skills in effective science communication, and perhaps discover new and exciting approaches along the way.
Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.
Johnson, T. R., Jansujwiez, J. S., and G. Zydlewski. 2015. Tidal power development n Maine: stakeholder identification and perceptions of engagement. Estuaries and Coasts 38: S266-S278.