Communicating Science Through Context


On Wednesday, I had the generous invitation to visit a University of California-Davis graduate student seminar, “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Communication Strategies”.

Professors Knudson and Gutstein graciously gave me the better part of an hour to discuss with students the communication lessons that I’ve found useful in my career so far. Here’s an adapted excerpt from my handout:

Why Communicate Science to the Lay Public?

Publishing your findings is one thing, but it’s just as important to clearly and effectively convey the significance of your research to your dean, a reporter, a senator or a stranger at a party. Simply put, the more people who know the implications of your research, the more opportunities may come for collaboration, funding, influencing public policy and improving societal awareness of science.

“Provide the Implications of Research”

The sixth bullet point in Liz Buckley’s piece (Ed. note: Buckley’s piece was the assigned reading from the instructors: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ieam.79) is a crucial one to effectively communicating science. But it’s not that journalists don’t want to report science for science’s sake — journalists prefer to report news that they think will matter to their immediate audience. This is both a public service decision and a business decision. Thus, if a journalist can’t see why his/her audience might care about your research, he/she will likely not report on it.

So you must build a contextual bridge between your work and our society. Take up these two mantras:

  1. Think Hyperlocally:  People care about where they live and places they like to go. So always emphasize where you conduct your research, or what implications your research has on a local area. But focus on the city/county/landmark scale — hence “hyperlocal” thinking. (Addendum 10/17: Or, when speaking with a reporter for a particular city/market, use a locale from that city as a context for explaining your research. Such as, “For example, everyone living in the XXXXX borough would be in danger of flooding according to this new model.”)
  2. Relate to the Other:  People care about their family legacy, job security, personal freedoms and health. So force yourself to examine societal issues from someone else’s viewpoint. Learn why someone might feel threatened or passionate about a particular topic (e.g. climate change, fisheries quotas, new medical therapies). You may not agree with their opinion, but learning how they arrived at their perspective will help you build that contextual bridge.

Ideas and Tips for Improving Science Communications Skills

  • Learn to write a 1-page briefing memo (single sheet, front-side only)
  • Get to know the public information officer (PIO) at your college/org and be helpful to them
  • Get exposed to social media, especially Twitter, Facebook and blogging tools
  • Read newspapers and local newsletters
  • Step back and examine how and where you get your news everyday
  • Think about why you like your favorite news website/magazine/paper/TV show
  • Ask a parent or non-scientist friend how they find out about science news
  • Talk with people from different walks of life/generations/disciplines
  • Practice. Write and talk about your interests as often as possible!
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6 thoughts on “Communicating Science Through Context

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