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Foundational Skills for Science Communication

A Preliminary Framework

White paper by Elyse L. Aurbach, Katherine E. Prater,  Emily T. Cloyd, & Laura Lindenfeld

Over the past 15 years, the number of science communication training opportunities has dramatically increased. This exponential growth has provided myriad opportunities to scientists - especially early-career scholars - and greatly expanded the types and foci of learning opportunities. But with this expansion comes the need for greater coherence. 

I and others believe that there is a clear need for trainers, researchers, practitioners, and funders supporting science communication and public engagement to better connect and share knowledge. Knowledge-sharing within and across our community can help us to accomplish a number of goals, including:

  1. Early practitioners can clearly understand the skills that they need to be effective in public spaces (and better navigate opportunities to gain those skills);
  2. Different training organizations can better support training around similar principles, so that science communication organizations do not provide conflicting or contradictory advice; and
  3. Training approaches can better build on existing research and prompt new experimental directions, so that our field can continue to evolve. 

Over the past several years, co-authors Katie Prater, Emily Cloyd, Laura Lindenfeld, and I have worked to collect and categorize the skills and content knowledge underlying effective science communication. In our white paper , our goal was to present our view of these key skills that apply regardless of audience or context, in order to enable the field to discuss and refine these ideas as core competencies for science communication.

We propose that foundational science communication skills can be separated into distinct categories, including: 

  • Identifying appropriate communication or engagement goals and objectives -  the process by which stakeholders can define and articulate what the engagement effort is intended to achieve, facilitating a backwards-design process;
  • Adapting to a communication landscape and audience - drawing on content knowledge and skills unique to each audience in order to better understand and meet their needs and goals;
  • Developing strong messaging - the ability to identify and shape core ideas and supporting information for a communication effort, including the ability to determine content that should be eliminated or contextualized in service of clarity and relevance;
  • Creating compelling narratives - structure that enables communicators to organize the content and information into a logical and compelling thread to promote understanding of, engagement with, or shaping of beliefs and feelings about the material;
  • Leveraging language - the myriad ways that words can promote or inhibit understanding of information and ideas being communicated;
  • Incorporating design - ideation and creation of any kind of supportive element that complements verbal or textual content (this is frequently visual in nature but is not limited to that sensory domain);
  • Supporting nonverbal communication - connects the deliberate use of vocal dynamics, as well as facial, hand, and body expressions to supplement verbal communication;
  • Crafting writing style - structural and stylistic elements of writing that shape a piece’s flow, rhythm, and emotionality; and 
  • Providing space for dialogue - the collective sets of practices that open up space for responsiveness and interaction in a communication or public engagement effort.

Notably, each foundational communication skill category is inextricably shaped by the audience (or partner) in the public engagement effort. 

We believe that this framework can support individuals and training organizations in developing curricula and other materials by providing structure and scaffolding on which they can base learning objectives and plans. Indeed, I have used this framework to structure my own graduate courses in science communication - please see this syllabus as an example .

While we hope that articulating this view of foundational communication skills will help our field to advance towards greater coherence, our observations do not address some

Important questions: 

  • Are these the right foundational communication skills, or does this organizational framework primarily reflect prevailing popular advice?
  • Will the evolving forms of public engagement with science inform the definition of what communication skills are foundational? 
  • How should these foundational communication skills be trained? 
  • Are some skills more important for successful communication and public engagement efforts than others? How might we evaluate this?
  • What other skills are important for effective public engagement with science (e.g., the value of being perceived as warm and competent), and how might we refine our thinking to consider these as foundational, too? 
  • Does learning foundational communication skills occur in discipline-specific academic training, and if so, how is that training embedded in these curricula?
  • Given limited time and resources, how should we prioritize training approaches to ground scientists with effective communication skills? 

My coauthors and I hope to foster conversation about the framework and these outstanding questions as our field continues to evolve. We welcome your comments in the discussion section below! Access the full white paper here .

Elyse Aurbach

As Public Engagement Lead at the University of Michigan's Center for Academic Innovation, Dr. Elyse Aurbach works to create opportunities for university and public partners can connect, collaborate, and learn from one another. Elyse leads strategy development for Academic Innovation’s part of the U-M Presidential strategic area of focus for faculty public engagement, conceptualizes and carries out projects in collaboration with faculty and staff, and develops opportunities for the campus community to come together and learn with and from one another.

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