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Communication centers are in a unique position to help scientists bridge science and society

Science promotes learning, discovery, and innovation; it informs public policy; and improves individual, societal, and global health. Yet many scientists struggle to reach the general public with their discoveries, while the public faces challenges deciphering meaning from complex data.

According to a recent article in Communication Center Journal, organizations that provide communication resources and training for scientists sit at an important crossroads. They can help connect those conducting the science with those who need to understand and use that science to make informed decisions. Such organizations are in the position to promote engagement instead of knowledge transfer.

Of course, the details of science – including the ethics and processes – matter enormously to discovery and research. However, that technical information is far less important when communicating about and using science. Instead, what matters is the ability to connect science to the experiences and cultures of the people and places it impacts. 

“Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is informed by people and their needs, and carried out by scientists who have devoted their lives to uncovering information that delivers hope and offers a path forward for the rest of us. So it only makes sense that scientists close that loop to ensure that their discoveries get back to the people who need it most — people like you and me,” said Brenda MacArthur, the study’s lead author and professor of practice at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. 

“Scientists have a duty to help people engage with science in meaningful ways. But to do that successfully, they must understand the people with whom they are communicating  – where they come from, what experiences have shaped the people that they are, and use that information to underscore the applicability of science in their lives.” 

In looking to share their work and its significance, scientists should view communication as part of a larger system in which social histories, structures, routines, and practices and norms are all connected. And, researchers say, scientists need help connecting all of these elements.

“Scientists spend years becoming experts in their fields, and increasingly they are realizing that for their work to have an impact they need to communicate it effectively,” said Laura Lindenfeld, one of the paper’s co-authors and executive director of the Alda Center. “So they are turning to science communication experts to help them reach people in meaningful ways.”

A growing number of organizations that provide science communication training are exploring different ways to help scientists engage others, through integrated tracks designed to inspire public or lifelong learning, to work with decision makers, and to encourage young people to explore science through educational programs.

In the article, “Bridging Science with Society: Defining Pathways for Engagement,” the authors examined three different science communication training organizations, each specializing in one of the three tracks. 

The paper highlighted the STEM Ambassadors Program, founded and supported by the National Science Foundation, for its successes in facilitating and encouraging scientists to engage with members of the public in non-traditional ways and settings. The program encourages scientists to build relationships with others who share common interests, and to create activities and programs outside of traditional venues like museums and schools.

The second organization, COMPASS, was discussed as an exemplar of engagement with decision-makers. In its training programs, COMPASS encourages scientists to work with policymakers and learn to navigate the complex world of policymaking and government to share climate and environmental science.

The final group, Ciencia Puerto Rico, focuses on reaching out to young and underrepresented groups in Puerto Rico to inspire them to explore science and, perhaps, to consider careers in science. In this way, the program connected scientists with children by helping the scientists understand the social histories and structures that contribute to the children’s understanding of the world and their place in it.

“Each of these spaces – lifelong learning, policy making, and youth education – are complex and present their own challenges and opportunities,” said co-author Elyse Aurbach, of the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation and board member of the SciComm Trainers Network. “As science communication centers consider their relative assets and positionality in a complex landscape of other organizations, recognizing their strengths in these areas can enable them to better serve the scientists who choose to work with them. In the same way, recognizing other organizations’ strengths and finding opportunities for collective action can lead to a strong coalition of training centers that can support each other and distinguish themselves. Such collective action can help all stakeholders to better understand and engage with the significance of science and research.”

In addition to MacArthur, Lindenfeld, and Aurbach, the article’s co-authors include Bronwyn Bevan, senior research scientist at the University of Washington, and Todd Newman, assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

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