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Theory and Best Practices in SciComm Training

Effective science communication is like a muscle, and communication training can help strengthen it. 

Communication is like a muscle. We would all love to end our workout with immediate results, but that is not the reality. It takes time, dedication, effort, and repetition before the results begin to emerge. Sometimes, it even helps to work with a trainer. So too is the reality for effective communication.

Scientists increasingly recognize the necessity of communicating their research in clear and effective ways to various audiences, whether it is a group of elementary students, journalists, or policymakers. Despite these changing norms, many scientists do not receive formal communication training. And why should they? Becoming a chemist or biologist takes years of coursework, countless hours at the lab bench, and of course, writing grants and preparing manuscripts. However, explaining the importance of applying your research to a commercial partner to invest in your discovery is easier said than done. Similarly, why should your neighbor care about how a Zebrafish's eye refracts light?

As my research with colleagues highlights , scientists are increasingly interested in investing time and effort to ensure that their pitch to a commercial investor is successful or connected to how their research on understanding Zebrafish biology leads to new technologies. 

Today, there are a growing number of science communication training organizations seeking to give scientists the skills to communicate their science effectively. For the most part, these trainings are grounded in techniques such as storytelling and message design,  which research in science communication finds are effective ways to connect with an audience.

Moreover, signifying the growth of science communication training, in 2019 the  SciComm Trainers Network  was established in the US to cultivate a community of individuals and organizations committed to advancing science communication training. To date, this is the largest collective group of individuals and organizations focused on science communication training.   

As a social scientist who studies science communication , I was amazed at the worldwide growth of science communication training programs. After taking part in a few communication training programs and sitting in on several others, I asked myself: What effect do these training programs have on scientists? Do they actually become better communicators, or do they just  think  they are better communicators? Moreover, how has science communication training evolved? While COVID is just one example highlighting the  need for effective science communication among scientists , the societal implications of science are far-reaching, requiring science communicators to adapt how they communicate to both a changing media ecosystem and a more polarized, disengaged public.  

As a topic of scholarly research, science communication training has been developing, especially in science communication journals. Yet, digging in deeper to the scholarly literature, I found a much more broad yet thin literature on communication training scattered across various discipline-specific journals in science education, health communication, interpersonal communication, and journalism. For example, in the healthcare context,  communication trainings are common for doctors, nurses, and other medical staff . If it was difficult for a communication researcher to find resources that could be useful for science communication trainers and researchers, how likely is it that others, particularly those who facilitate training programs and don't always have access to literature that it's behind paywalls, to find these resources, let alone synthesize the findings across the various disciplines and approaches? 

Newman's book, "Theory and Best Practices in Science Communication Training" cover

Bringing together the authors from many of these pieces of literature into one source was the aim of  Theory and Best Practices in Science Communication Training  (Routledge, 2020) . The edited volume brought together some of the  leading practitioners and researchers worldwide in science communication, science education, health communication, philanthropy, and journalism to weave together different perspectives on current trends, best practices, and directions for future research in science communication training.

  In the first section of the book, "The Scientist as a Strategic Communicator," authors explored the growing role of strategic communication within science communication, including the public role for scientists, and how communication training can support these efforts. In the second section, "Science Communication Training Design and Assessment," the authors focused on the practical side of science communication training, including the design and development of training programs, as well as methods for evaluation and assessment. The final section, "Future Directions for Science Communication Training," includes several chapters that put forward potential frameworks for sustaining the science communication training community.  

Science communication training is a vibrant and growing field. Just as there is a need to document best practices and approaches to communication training, there is also a need for reflection. Recently, innovative research  measuring the effectiveness of communication training on scientists' ability to communicate with non-expert audiences  is just one example of emerging research topics in the field. 

But in thinking on a broader level, it is essential that those in the science communication training community have a resource about key issues emerging in the field and the types of frameworks to consider either in starting their own training program or refining an existing training program. Likewise, as calls from the  academic  and  funding communities  for more opportunities to foster practitioner-researcher collaborations, science communication training is an important conduit for social science research on how to communicate science effectively to scientists and other experts doing public engagement and communication work. 

Science communication shifted from a once peripheral component of a scientist's job to one that is increasingly valued as the public image of science, growing societal debates about science, and issues of the use of science in policy become more complex. It is now more critical than ever for scientists to recognize that effective communication is a skill. And like any skill, it takes time to build through practice, and of course, training.   

Todd Newman

Todd P. Newman is an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliate of the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. His teaching responsibilities include courses in strategic communication and marketing. Newman’s research focuses on the role of strategic communication within the context of science, technology, and the environment.

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