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The Science of Science Communication: Why it matters

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The Science of Science Communication: Why it matters

Facts and scientific evidence should inform public decision-making wherever possible. That is why science communication is important. As such, the act of science communication should also be evidence-based. Research on science communication analyzes what works, and what doesn’t.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the “infodemic” [1] surrounding it have driven the point home once again on many issues. On timely issues like the distribution patterns of the new Coronavirus, climate change and gene editing, or generalized ones such as individual nutrition and healthcare, the public expects researchers to speak up. 

Accordingly, political bodies [2], stakeholders, scientific academies and associations [3], science funders [4] and others have called for more, improved science communication in recent years on a worldwide scale.  As a result, a myriad of science communication formats and activities abound; from public presentations to open days,participatory workshops to science slams, media appearances to Facebook posts and TikTok videos. 

Directly or indirectly, many of these activities emphasize the importance of scientific evidence, and, with it,  the importance of  a scientific system that produces  said evidence. These various bodies argue, albeit sometimes implicitly, that the knowledge produced by science represents the “best available evidence” [5] for many individual, organizational and societal decisions, and that science communication should therefore strive to make this knowledge widely available.

Natural History Museum London

Science communication, whether in museums or elsewhere, should be evidence-based. (Picture: Natural History Museum London, Pauline Loroy (@paulinel, unsplash))

Whilst this call for evidence-based decision-making has merit it should also be turned around and applied to science communication itself. The way science communication is done should also be evidence-based, too. After all, if you scicomm practitioners apply the principle to themselves how can one expect others to adhere to it? Hence, scientific analyses are required to analyze ways in which science communication works, towards what aims and the target audiences reached. Moving forward, these analyses should thus inform the practice of science communication. 

In a nutshell, this is the M.O. of science communication research. It is an interdisciplinary field that some have called the “science of science communication” [6], which has grown exponentially [7,8] in recent years. There are hundreds of studies analyzing how scientists and scientific organizations, but also NGOs, think tanks and other institutions (strategically) communicate about science. Also included are how journalists portray science, how science-related issues are discussed in legacy media and online, which audiences these discussions reach and what cognitive, attitudinal and behavioural effects they have. By now, a number [9] of handbooks [9,10] have been published that summarize findings from the field. Specialized journals like “Public Understanding of Science” , “Science Communication” or “JCOM – Journal of Science Communication” have emerged. The international “Public Communication of Science and Technology” Network (PCST) is devoted entirely to both research and practice of science communication, with annual  conferences that attract hundreds of participants.

Science communication scholars should analyze what works, and what doesn’t (Picture: Insung Yoon)

Science communication scholars should analyze what works, and what doesn’t. (Picture: Insung Yoon (@insungyoon, unsplash))

The science of science communication has generated many  instructive findings. It has shown, for example,that a substantial and growing  number of scientists [11] are willing to communicate their findings. It has also demonstrated that different models of science communication [12] exist, each with their  strengths and weaknesses. But it also shows that many scientists think of knowledge transfer as a one-directional process, [13] such as explaining things to ‘lay’ people  when they communicate. Whereas the research clearly demonstrates different audiences of science communication [14] that exist, which need to be addressed, each with specific aims, channels and messages. This finding has become even more urgent in our modern times of  digital, social and mobile media [15], which individualize communication,  contribute to erosion of legacy media [16] and challenge the traditional infrastructures of public (science) communication. 

References

  1. Department of Global Communications. “UN Tackles 'Infodemic' of Misinformation and Cybercrime in COVID-19 Crisis.” Accessed October 17, 2020. 

  2. Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Grundsatzpapier Des Bundesministeriums Für Bildung Und Forschung Zur Wissenschaftskommunikation. 2019. 

  3. “Communicating Science Online." American Association for the Advancement of Science. Accessed December 10, 2020. 

  4. “Science Communication." SNF. Accessed December 8, 2020. 

  5. Fischhoff, Baruch, and Dietram A. Scheufele. “The Science of Science Communication.” PNAS.
    National Academy of Sciences, August 20, 2013. (Supplement 3) 14031-14032. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1312080110

  6. Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Dan Kahan, and Dietram  A. Scheufele, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication. New York, NY 10016: Oxford University Press, 2017.

  7. Rauchfleisch, Adrian and Mike S. Schäfer. Structure and development of science communication research. Co-citation analysis of a developing field. DOI: Posted at the Zurich Open Repository and Archive, University of Zurich. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17030207 

  8. Guenther, Lars, and Marina Joubert. “Science Communication as a Field of Research: Identifying Trends, Challenges and Gaps by Analysing Research Papers.” Journal of Science Communication 16, no. 02 (2017). https://doi.org/10.22323/2.16020202

  9. Leßmöllmann Annette, Marcelo Dascal, and Thomas Gloning, eds. Science Communication. Series: Handbooks of Communication Science. De Gruter Mouton , 2020. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110255522

  10. Bucchi Massimiano, and Brian Trench, eds. Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. Routledge, 2019.

  11. Peters, Hans Peter. Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators, Hans Peter Peters. PNAS. August 20, 2013 110 (Supplement 3) 14102-14109; first published August 12, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1212745110

  12. Trench, Brian. Towards an Analytical Framework of Science Communication Models. Communicating Science in Social Contexts. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-8598-7_7

  13. Simis, Molly J, Haley Madden, Michael A Cacciatore, and Sara K Yeo. “The Lure of Rationality: Why Does the Deficit Model Persist in Science Communication?” Public understanding of science (Bristol, England). SAGE , April 26, 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27117768/

  14. Schäfer, Mike S, Tobias Füchslin, Julia Metag, Silje Kristiansen and Adrian Rauchfleisch. “The different audiences of science communication: A segmentation analysis of the Swiss population’s perceptions of science and their information and media use patterns”. First Published January 16, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662517752886

  15. Brossard, Dominique. New media landscapes and the science information consumer. PNAS. August 20, 2013 110 (Supplement 3) 14096-14101;
    First published August 12, 2013.
    https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1212744110

  16. Schäfer, Mike S. How Changing Media Structures Are Affecting Science News Coverage. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication. Online publication date: Jun 2017.
    10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190497620.013.5

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