How to improve science communication?

Some new initiatives in science communication have been suggested in an article in Nature Biotechnology this week.  The article is based on a science communication workshop that was held in Washington DC earlier this year, and one of the authors, Matthew Nisbet, has a run-down of it on his blog Framing Science – see here.

The eight main recommendations of the article are…

1. Scientists and science organizations should pursue a trust- and dialogue-based relationship with the public. More forums, conferences, and other public dialog initiatives should be held. The goal is not to persuade or to sell the public on the importance of science, but to “democratize” public input about scientific issues so that members of the public can meaningfully participate in science-related decision making.

2. Scientists and science organizations need to recognize the importance of framing science-related issues. Science communication efforts need to be based on careful audience research. In this regard, different frames of reference should be identified and tested that better communicate the nature and relevance of scientific issues across a diversity of audiences. This research on framing can be used to structure dialogue and to move public discourse beyond polarized arguments and entrenched positions.

3. Graduate students at science institutions should be taught the social and political contexts of science and how to communicate with the media and numerous publics. Graduate students are the future spokespeople and decision makers and need to understand the significance of research in the field of science communication. These programs should include specialized electives for doctoral students but also new interdisciplinary degree programs that combine scientific training with course work in communication, ethics, and policy.

4. Factors that facilitate media hype and errors should be recognized and addressed. Researchers should resist the temptation to describe their studies using hyperbolic metaphors and terminology, such as “ground breaking,” and remain true to the significance of a study. Research funding and methodological details need to be included in media coverage so that the public may better assess credibility. Short term gains in media credibility should not be valued over longer term relationship building with journalists, decision-makers, and the public.

5. Science communication initiatives should investigate new forms of digital media and film, moving beyond traditional popular science outlets such as the science beat at newspapers, science magazines, and TV programs such as PBS NOVA. This includes finding ways online to create opportunities for incidental exposure among key audiences not actively seeking news, information, and science-related content

6. Scientific organizations need to track science-related media coverage (whether news, entertainment, etc.) to be aware of the numerous cultural contexts through which the public interprets science. National newscasts, talk radio, blockbuster films, entertainment TV, and late night comedy provide broader audiences with alternative messages about science topics and can be important outlets for science communication.

7. Journalism schools and news organizations should develop a science policy beat to address the gap between journalists covering science and those covering politics. Developing such a beat and training journalists to understand both science and policy would provide important background for science policy debates.

8. New models of journalism–whether foundation, university, or government supported–are needed. The for-profit journalism business model is failing and specialty journalists, such as science journalists, are losing their jobs. In addition, new media formats offer another avenue for public participation, as user generated content can enhance professionally produced content.

Interesting stuff – expect to see more discussion of this on the Framing Science blog over the next week.

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