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Communicating science effectively to the public

by Allison Campbell, ACS President
June 27, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 18

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
A photo of Allison Campbell.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Communicating science to the public has taken on new urgency. Scientists and even science itself are now being thrust into a place of high visibility in the U.S. popular media and in the national policy debate. This visibility provides us with a historic opportunity to engage and reach the public with messages conveying the impact, importance, and excitement of science.

The imperative is clear. President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 Budget Blueprint proposes significant cuts to most federal agencies and programs that fund scientific research. Although this budget reflects the President’s priorities, Congress will ultimately appropriate funding. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Members of Congress reflect the values and voices of their respective constituencies. Therefore, we must ensure that the American public is informed about the societal benefits that science delivers and its critical importance to every dimension of our well-being.

In my experience, scientists tend to avoid popular attention, preferring to focus on their research, their publications, and on communicating with peers. We are trained to think and explain our work precisely, careful not to extend beyond the boundaries of our findings. As a method for the discovery of truth, the power and legitimacy of science lie in strict adherence to methodological rules.

Because popular media outlets do not adhere to these same rules, they can be a foreign and risky arena for scientists. Social media, predominant as they are today, amplify the perceived risks of communicating with the nonscientific public.

There are, of course, many gifted science communicators whose work of translating science for the public is creative and effective. For example, anyone familiar with the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elizabeth Kolbert, Mary Roach, or Michio Kaku knows that even the most complex science can be presented in ways that are relevant, inspiring, and unforgettable. Gifted science communicators provide an invaluable service both to the scientific community and to the public in their ability to build bridges between divergent cultures. We can learn a lot from them.

My goal is not to transform every scientist into a professional communicator, but rather to infuse our culture with principles that successful communicators use to reach nontechnical audiences. In short, reaching the public must become as important to us as reaching our peers.

I have observed four principles we all might consider adopting to become more effective communicators and ambassadors for science:

Understand the audience. Whether talking with local media, writing an article for a popular magazine, or meeting with elected officials, we have to gauge our audiences’ interest and their ability to hear the messages we want to convey. Research the audience in advance and know its level of familiarity with science. It is also important to have a sense of the audience’s interests and concerns so that we can present our work in ways that are interesting and timely.

Tell good stories. Everyone loves a good story. But the structure of a compelling story is different from that of a successful journal article. Science is an ongoing detective story full of plot twists, surprise findings, red herrings, and unintended outcomes. We can create narratives that maintain the integrity of our work while also following the contours of good storytelling.

Speak plainly. Technical jargon is the kryptonite of good communication for two reasons. First, and most obviously, we are unlikely to convey a message if our listeners do not speak our language. Jargon has an even more corrosive effect, however. By design, technical language is intended to allow precise communication within a specific community. The flip side is that it excludes those on the outside. Using technical language with nontechnical audiences not only fails to deliver the message, but actively pushes listeners away, and may contribute to misperceptions of scientists as aloof and irrelevant. We also need to be attuned to the potential for misinterpretation of messages. Even common words can have sharply different meanings in different contexts. For example, words such as aerosol, amendment, error, and uncertainty mean different things to scientists than to policy-makers and the public; awareness of these differences matters.

Play the long game. We need to commit to ongoing outreach and relationship building with the public. Establishing mutual understanding and trust only occurs through consistent effort. We have many avenues to reach new audiences and a wider public, but consistent commitment to them may be the most important factor in building broader awareness of, and support for, the central importance of science in our everyday lives.

The recent March for Science was an unprecedented event (see page 12), especially given scientists’ general tendency to avoid intense media attention. It was a powerful and urgent statement on the importance of science as a method for truth and celebration of all that science offers society.

The march succeeded in delivering a strong message to large national and international audiences. I urge us all now to maintain an appetite for communication with the public and to address the need for ongoing engagement that has been illuminated by current events.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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