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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Wherefore Science Communications?

— by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

When I was growing up, a communicator was the device that Captain Kirk used to radio instructions to Chief Engineer Scott: “Beam me up, Scotty,” and then he’d turn into silver twinkles and that was that.  Times have changed as we now have two Spocks in the same movie at the same time—and there is an emerging class of trained professional individuals known as “communicators” who seem to be cropping up at major science laboratories all around the world.

The International Linear Collider has communicators (one from each region), laboratories and universities have dedicated science-communications teams, and the world-wide InterAction Collaboration was formed to bring the communications leaders of the world’s chief subatomic-physics laboratories together twice a year.  So, just what is science communications and what is its role in the world of research?

By definition, science communications means communication activities that share information about science and technology.  Scientists talk to one another about their research through journal papers, professional conferences, and yes, even by e-mail.  This level of “communicating about science” is typically not included in science-communications work although such “communication with the broader research community” is often quite crucial for the success of research.  And, of course, by science, we usually mean “science, technology, engineering, and medicine” (STEM).

Science communications also usually refers to the activities or individuals who work with intention, professionalism, and partnership.  Clipping a newspaper article about breakthroughs in medical-imaging technology and sending it to my grandmother is a form of communicating about science, but again, this type of activity is usually excluded from what we mean by “science communications.”  And then there’s “outreach.”  But let’s discuss that later in this article.

The Case for Science Communications

There is widespread discussion about the case for science communications.  Generally speaking, it is assumed that while science is not intrinsically “good” or “bad,” the advancement of science and human knowledge is important and has value.  In broad terms, the arguments of the proponents can be grouped into the following categories.

  • “To know is to love.”  If only the public understood science, they would like it more.  Often called the Public Understanding of Science school of thought, these proponents assert that when  the public knows and understands the content of scientific research, they will better appreciate it and therefore not only choose to increase public finances for it but also consider steering more young people into science.  In this vein, science communication seeks to expand the understanding and appreciation of science.  This is also sometimes called “popularization” of science.
  • “If science is for everyone, we have to share it with them—especially since they are paying for it.”  If public finances are one of the largest sources of funds for science, then the outcomes of scientific research should be paid back as “dividends” to the public.  And since the public is composed mostly of non-scientists, science communicators must “translate” the results of science into terms that the public can digest.  This line of reasoning is also connected to the “civic obligation” set of arguments.
  • “Sense of civic obligation.”  Just as great societies support and celebrate the work of artists, musicians, and poets as part of advancing the human condition, the knowledge and contexts derived from scientific research offer invaluable wisdom to the public.  Science communicators are then involved in the quest to share the majesty and wonder of science with the public as part of a moral commitment to the public good and well-being.
  • “Athenian ideals.”  A powerful and healthy democracy relies on the education and thoughtfulness of all its citizens.  As scientific research yields new understanding about how nature works and what is and is not possible, the citizens of a great society need to stay apprised of these fruits of knowledge so as to properly serve the country.  In some cases, proponents of the “Athenian ideals” will also point to the role of science communications in helping a society develop reasonable societal and ethical frameworks for dealing with breakthroughs in science and technology (e.g., weapons of mass destruction, stem-cell research, or human cloning).
  • “Inspiring the next generation.”  Science as a calling is not for everyone, but it offers inspiration and imagination to young people.  Communicators should focus on sharing the wonders and beauties revealed by science to inspire the next generation of leaders, scientists, and engineers.
  • “Corporate affairs, corporate identity.”  This argument has more texture than most as it suggests that the performers of science have a responsibility to represent their skills and abilities to the public, just like a corporation, charity, or popular music band.
  • “Looking good” or “Spin-doctoring.”  This rationale is more cynical than the others and simply asserts that as an enterprise, science needs marketing and public-relations activities to maintain public support (e.g., funding).  The public would never understand the true practice and important of science, so communicators are needed to “position” science and “make it look good.”

There is a wide spectrum of arguments supporting the case for science communications and this list has presumptuously identified the chief elements.  Of course, there is a corresponding set of opposing arguments that either criticize elements of above or that question the coherence and existence of science communications as an intentional, professional activity altogether.  For instance, one criticism argues that science communications implies a tight boundary around those who can articulate true, reliable knowledge.  By defining a deficient public as recipients of knowledge, scientists get to contrast their own identity as experts.  Understood in this way, science communication may explicitly exist to connect scientists with the rest of society, but its very existence only acts to emphasize the distance between them: as if the scientific community only invited the public to play in order to reinforce its most powerful boundary.

As the field matures and grows stronger (there are only a handful of formal academic programs of study in science communications in North America), the scope and character of the discipline will sharpen.

Science Outreach and the “Public”

Related to this existential discussion are the distinctions among science communications, outreach, and education.  Science education is typically related to pedagogical activities whose primary purpose is to achieve learning outcomes within the context of established curricula and teaching constructs established for students.  Also included would be activities designed to improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities of teachers.

The distinction between science communications and outreach is less clear; it hinges upon a word used glibly above: the public.  What is the general public?  Is it a monolithic black box containing “everyone who is not a scientist?”  In recent years, science communications practitioners and researchers have not only begun to distinguish different “audiences” within the public, but have also begun insisting on two-way participatory process where scientists and communicators listen to what non-scientists have to say.  This relatively new understandings have led to what is often called “strategic communications” in which communicators identify target audiences, key messages, and tactics to advance stated outcomes or objectives within those audiences.

Loosely speaking, then, science outreach seeks (a) to popularize and communicate science to broad audiences within the general public that are already pre-disposed to “like” science and/or (b) to achieve general understanding, interest, and affinity for specific elements of science.

A Measure of Success

Perhaps the greatest challenge in science communications is the lack of definitive metrics of success and impact.  In the media relations subfield, for instance, practitioners typically quote “number of readers/viewers” or “advertisement buy value” as measures of how successful a piece of coverage was.  But in the real world, it is hard to discern whether the attention of a body of readers of viewers actually changed anything—do they think differently, do they know more, have their views shifted?  Within stakeholder relations, the most popular statistic for measuring positive impact is simply, “Well, nothing bad happened yet: the government and/or the public haven’t closed us down.”

This lack of a definitive metric for success does hold back science communications to an extent.  It is hard to make the case for an activity whose outcomes are diffuse and unquantifiable.  And it can even be difficult to make the correct strategic choices about which activities to pursue without the guidance of clear, concrete predictions of impact.  However, as financial experts will agree, predictions of future performance are not always good indicators for what makes the most sense and has the most value.

In general, though, sharing about science seems like a good and virtuous endeavour and research institutions around the world are taking science communications forward as a necessary and serious part of their public mission.