Science communication training gets strategic @ConversationUS #scicomm

Science communication training should be about more than just how to transmit knowledge

John Besley, Michigan State University and Anthony Dudo, University of Texas at Austin

For some scientists, communicating effectively with the public seems to come naturally. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson currently has more than five million Twitter followers. Astronomer Carl Sagan enraptured audiences for decades as a ubiquitous cosmic sage on American televisions. And Stephen Jay Gould’s public visibility was such that he voiced an animated version of himself on “The Simpsons.” But, for most scientists, outward-facing communication is not something they’ve typically thought about much… let alone sought to cultivate.

But times change. Leaders in the scientific community are increasingly calling on their scientist colleagues to meaningfully engage with their fellow citizens. The hope is that such interactions can improve the science-society relationship at a time when we are confronting a growing list of high-stakes, high-controversy issues including climate change, synthetic biology and epigenetics.

The gauntlet has been issued, but can scientists meet it?

The answer to that question largely depends on one key group: professional science communication trainers who offer formalized guidance designed to improve scientists’ public communication efforts. There’s a wellspring of science communication programs, among them the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Programs like these typically provide communication courses of a half-day up to a week or more. Some organizations also employ in-house personnel to train their scientists to communicate.

Given the important role these training programs now play in the public communication of science, we sought to examine their work. Broadly, we were looking for commonalities in their efforts and experiences, and we wanted to spot possible opportunities for their growth. We were especially interested in something we view as being critical to effective public engagement: helping scientists identify and try to achieve specific communication goals.

What trainers focus on

In late 2014, we conducted a set of 24 interviews with science communication trainers from across the United States. Ours is the first published study examining this important community. We found that much of the training they provided focused on helping scientists share their research in clear ways that would increase knowledge.

This is consistent with what scientists have told us in surveys: their main objective in communicating their work is to inform the public about science and correct misinformation.

Sharing knowledge will always be a central component of science communication – knowledge generation is, after all, the main enterprise of science. And relaying knowledge makes up the bulk of the science journalism the public encounters through the media – stories about new discoveries and the latest research.

But there are other reasons scientists might want to communicate with the general public. We call these “nonknowledge objectives” – things like fostering excitement about science, building trust in the scientific community, or reframing how people think about certain issues. These objectives are different from a biologist wanting to share with a listener the details on her research on bird migration, for instance. They’re more about people, and forging relationships.

We’ve found that these sorts of nonknowledge goals have a relatively lower priority for scientists compared to the desire to get information across about their direct scientific work. Not surprisingly, only a few of the trainers we interviewed indicated that, at that time, they were explicitly trying to help scientists achieve these other kinds of nonknowledge objectives.

Nevertheless, the trainers told us they believed many of the scientists they train want to communicate to help raise public support for science in general and because they think their research will help people see the value in specific policy options.

Our work suggests that scientists and the trainers they work with often focus primarily on the successful transmission of science information, leaving those other objectives to fall into place. But there’s a problem with that logic. Decades of science communication research – a research area now commonly referred to as the science of science communication – show that fostering positive views about science requires more than just trying to correct deficits in public knowledge.

Matching the training to the ultimate goal

It may be useful to consider alternatives (or additions) to the character of the current training landscape. The emphasis now is on teaching scientists key journalism skills to help them share information more effectively – by, for instance, distilling jargon-free messages. Training typically places limited emphasis on whether sharing that information will have the desired effect.

Instead, given scientists’ goals, training could help scientists avoid doing things that have little potential for impact or, worse, actually diminish people’s views of science.

Extensive research shows that we tend to trust people we judge to be warm and caring because they seem less likely to want to do us harm. With that in mind, more training could explicitly help scientists avoid doing the types of things that might convey a cold demeanor. For example, no matter how accurate a scientist’s argument may be, if communicated rudely it will likely miss its mark. Worse still, it may generate negative feelings that a recipient could then generalize more broadly to the scientific community.

Related research on what people perceive to be fair or not when it comes to making important decisions could also inform communication training. Studies emphasize the potential strategic value of making sure people feel like they’re being listened to and treated with respect. Imagine, for example, how you’d feel if a doctor didn’t give you a genuine chance to share your personal experiences with an ailment.

Similarly, given what we know about the value of framing, perhaps more training should help scientists find ways to talk about issues that are consistent with the scientists’ work but that are also consistent with the priorities or worldviews of the people with whom they are speaking. For example, given the value that people put on their families’ health, it may make sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.

Challenges to getting more strategic

There are at least two challenges associated with suggesting a more strategic approach to science communication.

First, it is easier to communicate in ways that come naturally and simply hope for the best.

Second, there is a danger that some people will misconstrue being strategic as being dishonest. On the contrary, effective strategic communication rests on authenticity, just like science. Science communicators should never do things like pretend to be warm, fake listening or frame things in ways they don’t think are appropriate.

The point is that by thinking strategically, we can begin to recognize that our communication choices – whether it’s leaving time after a talk for real discussion, calling those with whom we disagree ugly names or framing every disagreement as a war – have consequences.

It also seems clear that science communicators and communication trainers – who, in our experience, provide outstanding training in key skills – are already focusing on certain tactics that affect things like trust without making the explicit connection. For example, just using accessible language and speaking without jargon might communicate that scientists care enough about those with whom they are speaking to accommodate them. The power of telling stories isn’t just a better way to convey information; it’s a social act with social consequences.

Effective public engagement involves high-quality interactions between people. This means that many of the actual effects are likely to be due to the quality of the relationships between participants, including scientists and nonscientists. Content matters, of course, but not unless a healthy dynamic for information exchange is established.

The science communication training community is already doing great work. Ultimately, as trainers and scientists get more strategic in their science communication, it will help justify the time and resources it takes to communicate effectively. And they can forgo activities that seem unlikely to have an impact.

The Conversation

John Besley, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University and Anthony Dudo, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Francisco Azuaje – not all scientific talks are good. #science needs to #keepitreal

Check out this post written by Francisco Azuaje for United Academics Magazine about the state of scientific talks. I think Azuaje brings up a lot of important points (More on Azuaje here). In my opinion there are still plenty of average, or below average talks… so perhaps we should keep it real more often. But do it in a sincere and supportive manner. I also love that the title of the post is a play on the Peter, Paul, and Mary song title 😉

Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most admired scientists, advised young researchers that “the greatest proportion of moral decisions you will be required to make is in your relationships with other scientists”1.  And indeed this is a vital challenge, not only because science is above all a social networking endeavour, but also because an awareness of this reality may regrettably lead us to over-emphasize the importance of looking or sounding good to others.

And perhaps it is such an anxiety to find a cosy place in the nest of consensus among “peers” that is creating so much delusion.

We need to re-discover average, good and could-be-better. We can do it sincerely, kindly and with rational purpose. Only this way we will be able to spot the truly great.

Don’t rain on my scientific conference – Abstract about homosexuality from #ASHG15 stirs controversy! @GeneticsSociety #scicomm

DONT FORGET – Help us do science! The survey should only take 5-10 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: By participating, you’ll be helping me improve CauseScience and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt or a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available).

In case you didn’t see the media coverage of an abstract from the recent meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Baltimore, Maryland (see Nature News stories here), an abstract presented preliminary data in the search for the genetic roots of homosexuality in human twins. Obviously this scientific presentation, and the press release about it from the conference, generated excitement, skepticism, and now controversy. Nature has a terrific editorial this week examining how this was a failure in science communication. Scientific conferences and meetings are meant to be a place to present preliminary, controversial, and incomplete studies to scientific peers to get feedback, ideas, and promote the work being done. Criticism of the work and experiments are always a part of this process, but where do we draw the line?

A few critics went so far as to argue that the authors should not have presented such preliminary work at the meeting. And at least one suggested that the authors could have provided preprints of their study when presenting it. These arguments seem to misunderstand the traditional, and still useful and relevant, role of such gatherings. Studies with small sample sizes and controversial methods are presented at conferences all the time, and many scientists already fear being scooped when they present even a bit of their data.

One might wonder how so much media coverage was generated from a scientific conference abstract, and the answer is that the conference used the abstract in a press release, unfortunately titled, ‘Epigenetic Algorithm Accurately Predicts Male Sexual Orientation.’ While this may represent the science, it opens the door for misinterpretation by non-scientists that never saw the data presented. This failure in science communication has a remedy, and it involves being careful with press releases of unpublished, non-peer-reviewed science, especially on topics that could be ‘misused’ or misinterpreted by the press.

The genetics of homosexuality is a subject that will always find media coverage, partly because of the societal interest in the topic. Neither the scientists nor the conference organizers can be held responsible for how some in the media chose to write about the study. But both could have done more to get the right message across.

#Science celebrity who? Inspiring career talk by Tony Fauci!! @NIH @NIAIDNews #scicomm


In case you missed our tweets, I visited my brother and psgurel at NIH on Friday and crashed a talk by NIAID Director Anthony Fauci (one of our main science celebrities/science crushes). Fauci’s talk was about his career and how he got to each point of it. From growing up in Brooklyn, studying classics in college, researching and treating HIV patients, to dealing with the recent Ebola outbreak, Fauci said you can never see where your career might lead you. He truly is an amazing clinician, scientist, advocate, and communicator of science!

One piece of advice Fauci gave was to always be nice to everyone you meet, because you never know where they may end up (while showing a picture of him and then first lady Hillary Clinton –  he also more or less endorsed her for 2016, haha). I highly recommend trying to see Fauci talk if you can …. maybe he’ll be NIH Director one day 🙂

[tweet] [tweet] [tweet] [tweet]

Pint of Science Festival May 18-20 #TEDtalks #boozyscience

May 18-20 is the Pint of science Festival, a nonprofit movement to share and discuss science in a local and casual setting.  The goal is to have 2-3 scientists at a couple of bars in each city giving 20min TED style talks to lay audiences, helping spread the word on the work that they are doing.  So far, 9 cities are hosting, and hopefully in years to come, this event will grow! Check out their podcasts from previous events and be sure to attend if your city is hosting!

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 5.15.54 PM

#Science Quotable: Marcia McNutt – Training science communicators starts with a poster! #SciComm

Scientists frequently lament the scarcity of effective scientific communicators—those who can explain complex concepts to the public, present scientifically sound alternatives to policy-makers, and make cogent arguments for the value of science to society. A few stellar programs are designed to select and train elite articulators, but some simple steps can improve the communication skills of all scientists. Most researchers learn how to talk about science at meetings. If scientists cannot explain their work clearly and succinctly to their peers, it is highly unlikely that they can explain it effectively to nonspecialists.

Training the next generation of scientists to communicate well should be a priority.

– Marica McNutt, Editor-in-Chief Science Journals – Quoted from: “It Starts With A Poster

Learn how to communicate #science to non-scientists!! Apply for this exciting #SciComm program – @ResearchAmerica

dots Are you a scientist, physician, researcher or academic interested in Science Communication??? Research!America and George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs have put together an amazing professional development program: “Connecting the Dots: Effectively Communicating Science to Non-Scientists. The 2-day program (April 13-14) will focus on effectively communicating science and research to the public! Applications have been extended to February 6th!! So act fast! More info here! Topics include:

  • Strategic Scientific Communications
  • Using Social and Digital Media for Influence and Persuasion
  • Developing and Delivering Messages
  • Communications Planning
  • Public Presentations
  • Creating Leads, Talking Points and Visuals
  • Media Training

Share your science, win some money!!

iBiology, in conjunction with the Lasker Foundation and the Alan Alda center for communicating science is hosting a Young Scientist Seminar competition:


iBiology, which generally features research talks by well-known senior scientists, is expanding its focus to highlight the work of outstanding young scientists. PhD candidates or postdocs with an interesting research story and good presentation skills are encouraged to apply. Four winners will attend a two-day workshop at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, a leading organization in training scientists to give effective talks. After this training, the selected scientists will record their 30-minute talks in a green screen studio. The talks will be posted on as part of a new Young Scientist Seminar Series. For young scientists, this is a unique opportunity to showcase your work!

Great opportunity to showcase scientific work and improve science communication skills! Deadline is February 1st.


Alan Alda gets UCSD excited, and educated, about communicating science!! #scicomm #storify @AldaCenter


If you follow CauseScience on twitter, you may have seen us retweet Alan Alda’s talk about communicating science at UCSD (above). Check out this terrific storify on Alda’s talk at UCSD, which describes the message and highlights of the talk. Alan Alda, and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, have CauseScience excited about science communication. Now let’s spread that enthusiasm!!!

Alan Alda’s “Getting The Public Past a Blind Date with Science” Talk at UCSD January 2015 #aldacentersd #scicomm

#Science and Health Communication Internships at National Cancer Institute! #scicomm @NIH


Two more great opportunities for scientists/researchers interested in gaining experience in science and health communication!! Check out the site here for more info and the application!

The HCIP gives highly qualified graduate students and recent graduate degree recipients the opportunity to participate in vital health and science communications projects in one of the many offices that make up the NCI.  Interns will select an area of emphasis: Health Communications or Science Writing.  Six-month and one-year internship terms are available.

Info below on the two distinct internships!!

Successful Health Communications applicants have some science background as well as experience and/or education in any of the following areas:  public health, epidemiology, public relations, health education, communications, science writing, statistics, social marketing, or journalism.

Successful Science Writing applicants have a science background with the ability to translate complex scientific concepts into material suitable for a lay audience.