Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part I

(Part one in a series of two articles)

You don’t really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother.” —Albert Einstein

Brief and succinct, this quote captures the essence of science communication, which has become a discipline all its own.

The development and proliferation of science journalism programs across the United States started to take hold in the 1970s when the U.S. news media identified a need for specially trained reporters to cover science and engineering-related events.  The early adopters of these programs equipped aspiring students with basic and general knowledge of a broad array of scientific disciplines.

One of the first institutions to establish a science writing program was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by the science communication program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and New York University’s science and environmental reporting program. These programs foster communications on scientific issues that are evidence-based and help to simplify complicated scientific information for the general public.

·         MIT’s science writing program is a one-year graduate program that leads to a master’s degree in science writing. It is targeted to English or science majors, journalists, or scholars seeking to specialize in the discipline of science writing.

·         The science writing program at U.C. Santa Cruz is one year long and focuses solely on practical training, including coursework and internships. This program is the only graduate science writing program in the United States that requires a degree in science and experience in research.

·         New York University offers an intensive 16-month program where graduates receive a master’s degree in journalism with a concentration in science, health and environmental reporting. They are equipped to cover scientific, medical and environmental topics with precision, nuance and passion.

Communicators who excel in these areas can bridge the gaps in scientific knowledge and technology with the public, thus increasing overall knowledge and improving understanding.

Why Do We Need to Communicate About Science?

Science communicators work in various settings from freelance writing (i.e., newspapers, magazines, journals or blogs) to organizing and staffing science fairs and museum exhibits, or providing expert counsel to productions, films or TV segments.

Scientific findings can be a moving target and are never final. There is almost always a need for more research or further evaluation of results.  This combined with the inexhaustible tendency among some media to inflate research findings—oftentimes creating controversy—opens up the communications process to misuse and exploitation.

An example of this is the ongoing argument around vaccinations’ supposed link to autism, a situation that called well-established scientific findings into question with troublesome repercussions for public health.

A well-executed science communication program can bring needed attention to research findings that have implications for society’s greater good. Communicating research conclusions is a top priority in today’s competitive research funding process. Too many researchers, however, have difficulty talking about their work in a way that people who are not scientists can understand.

Science communication can remedy this problem by providing a stronger understanding of current research, its trials, tribulations and, most importantly its wider relevance to society.  Relevance builds confidence, and this confidence leads to greater support, financial or otherwise.

Knowingly or not, everyone has a vested interest in the direction in which research moves. Good science communication will enhance and increase public awareness of their interests. The more that science communicators can engage and educate the public, the better the reporting will become and the less the public will be swayed by sensationalism.

Effective science communication also has the potential to bridge differences among us. For instance, many communicators are trying to reach diverse audiences but are using the same strategies for each. What are actually needed are audience-appropriate strategies. Why? Because different target audiences have various levels of science literacy, values, interests and trusted sources of information.

Are We Having an Impact?

By some indications, science literacy and support for scientific findings are decreasing in perceived importance and in many cases are not well understood. Too often, communicators are reaching those who are already on board or are easily reached. In many cases, communicators offer up single solutions to complicated problems, which in reality requires fitting together many pieces of an entire puzzle.

Consider the discussions and debates around climate change, genetically engineered foods or vaccinations.  We’ve written about “single study syndrome” before. A poorly trained communicator can fall prey to conclusions or data that run counter to a well-established body of science and evidence, which can “poison the well” of discourse and lead to undesirable policies and outcomes.

Science communicators often have to evaluate and interpret scientific findings for the non-scientists. Aside from clarifying the methods used in conducting or reporting on the results of a research study, we need to better explain the totality of evidence and relay where consensus exists or if it even exists. One study finding (out of possibly many) must be put into context within the entire body of evidence on that particular subject. We must not try to position research in black and white outcomes.

Next month we’ll take a look at some more of the advocates of science communication and how the subject will be critical to help today’s students become the interpreters of tomorrow’s science.