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The Science of Science Communication

Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and other technologies all have one thing in common. The conversations surrounding them and other science-based issues are often overwhelmed by controversy and conflicting perceptions that are reinforced by a lack of public understanding and action.

Increased calls for improving science communication have come from political bodies (Federal Ministry of Education and Research, 2019), stakeholders, scientific academies and associations (AAAS, 2020), science funders (SNF, 2020), and others in recent years. Upon answering this call, a plethora of science communication formats and activities came about. This includes public presentations, science festivals, participatory workshops, science cafes, media appearances, Facebook posts, and, most recently, TikTok videos. The world of science communication seems to have endless opportunities for dialogue between scientists and the public. 

Many of these activities emphasize the importance of scientific evidence, and, with it, the importance of a system that produces said evidence. Fischhoff and Scheufele (2013) argue that the knowledge produced by science represents the “best available evidence” for many individuals, organizational and societal decisions, and that science communication should strive to make this knowledge widely available.

Communication is a two-way process, in which scientists must listen as well as speak, if they are to identify the most relevant information and assess their success at conveying it. 

The challenge presents itself when it comes to communicating that science. Are there best practices based on scientific evidence that scientists, professional communicators, and the interested public should be following in terms of science communication? Enter the science of science communication.

The science of science communication is an ever-growing, interdisciplinary area of research that looks at how to best communicate science. 

There are hundreds of studies looking at how not only scientists and scientific organizations, but also NGOs, think-tanks, and other institutions strategically communicate about science. Additionally, the research includes the portrayal of science in the media, how science-related issues are discussed online, which audiences these discussions reach, and the behavioral and attitudinal effects they have, among other topics. 

A number of handbooks (Oxford handbook, Leßmöllmann et al., 2020, Massimiano and Trenc, 2019) have been published that summarize findings from the field. Specialized journals have  emerged, such as “ Public Understanding of Science”, “ Science Communication” or “ JCOM – Journal of Science Communication”. The international “ Public Communication of Science and Technology” Network (PCST) is devoted entirely to both research and practice of science communication, with annual conferences that attract hundreds of participants. Even the National Academy of Sciences hosted its second Sackler colloquium on this topic to advance a national dialogue.

Communication scientists can be found in disciplinary departments, such as psychology, sociology, and political science. Some are in interdisciplinary ones, such as geography, business, and public policy. Some departments include scientists who view themselves in both ways. 

The communication of science is held to the same standards as the science being communicated. It should be informed by existing science (e.g., studies of how to avoid confusion between correlation and causality), rather than just intuition. It should subject itself to empirical evaluation, recognizing that even the best behavioral and social science cannot confidently predict human behavior in complex, novel settings.

Evidence-based science communication should combine the best available evidence from research, that’s established theory, as well as practitioners' acquired skills and expertise, reducing the double-disconnect between scholarship and practice.

If you would like your science communicated in an accurate manner, based on scientific evidence, turn to the field of science communication research and start engaging with communication scientists on how to best communicate your work. 

Interested in more information?

Jamieson, K.H.(2017). The Need for a Science of Science Communication: Communicating Science’s Values and Norms of the Oxford Handbook of Science of Science Communication, 2017. 

Akin, H. & Scheufele, D.A. (2017). Overview of the Science of Science Communication of the Oxford Handbook of Science of Science Communication, 2017. 

Hallman, W. (2017). What the Public Thinks and Knows About Science – and Why It Matters of the Oxford Handbook of Science of Science Communication, 2017. 

What is the “science of science communication”? Dan M. Kahan

The science of science communication by Baruch Fischhoff and Dietram A. Scheufele

Claire Holesovsky

Claire Holesovsky is the Science Communication Specialist in the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is affiliated faculty in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on public attitudes towards policy surrounding controversial science, scientific decision-making, and public engagement with science. She received her MS and BS in Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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