Welcome to PESC’s brief guide to public engagement and science communication. Here you will find basic information on best practices for communicating about scientific and technical information with scientists, stakeholders, and larger publics. Science communication is a large and complex topic, as well as a highly active area of research and scholarship. No brief guide can teach you all that you might need to know, so the materials here should be considered a good starting place. Wherever possible, the PESC Guide will provide links to additional resources and supplementary materials to help you further your inquiring into communicating scientific information.
All communication, whether scientific or otherwise, is influenced by your mental model of how communication works. We all have a basic idea of the nature of communication, and we use it to get through the day. Sometimes that model can be very helpful, while other times it gets in the way. One of the most common and popular models of communication is the transmission model. The transmission model or sender-receiver model is just what it sounds like. It involves conceiving of communication as the sending of information to a receiver.
The transmission model of communication tends to focus the writer or speaker’s attention on a fairly limited range of communication tasks, such as ensuring message clarity. Now certainly, making sure your message is clear is important, but it’s not everything. Most people can remember a time in their life when the transmission model led them astray, even if they didn’t realize that’s what was happening at the time. For many, the transmission model of communication has caused significant problems in a personal relationship. If clearly communicating necessary information is all you do, you may miss out on essential emotional issues involved.
Most science communication operates according to a mental model of communication based on the transmission model. This is known as the deficit model. The deficit model of science communication assumes that scientifically-unsound decision making by politicians or the public is the result of a lack of scientific knowledge. It assumes that the best remedy is the clear transmission of correct scientific information to the public.
There’s one huge problem with this: it doesn’t work. Large bodies of evidence from social science research in science communication has demonstrated conclusively that filling the public’s head with the best scientific information available seldom results in the desired chances of opinion or behaviors. According to Gordon Gouchat (2012), this is partially due to the ever growing public distrust of scientists. Bruce V. Lewenstein (2003) indicates that the public has more of a vested interest in science matters that directly impact their communities, but that larger-scale issues tend to get ignored for lack of understanding. Gene Rowe and Lynn J Frewer (2005) argue that the efficiency of the message from the scientific sector to the public sphere can be compromised due to three factors: “when the information from the sources is somehow suboptimal (information is incomplete, irrelevant, or simply incorrect), when information is lost or distorted in the transfer process, and when the receiver inappropriately processes the information (by misinterpretation or selective attention)” (263). This deficit model science communication also tends to alienate the public you’re trying to reach.
Unlike either the transmission or deficit models, the communication triangle provides a flexible and adaptable model of communication that can be used without the damaging side effects. In short, the communication triangle understands any act of human communication to occur at the intersection of an audience, a purpose, and a context
The communication triangle can be an especially helpful tool for approaching both familiar and unfamiliar communication situations. Effective communication involves learning to custom tailor what you say/write and how you say/write it to meet the needs of the audience, purpose and context.
Purpose: In some respects, purpose is the easiest part of the communication triangle. What do you want to accomplish? What do you hope the outcome of your communication efforts will be? Identifying your primary and secondary aims can help you develop targeted communication strategies. Some of the earliest communication theorists identified three basic goals for any communication situation: 1) to inform, 2) to persuade, 3) to delight. However, very few acts of communication only use one of these, and most effective science communication targets all three. Think of popular science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Pretty much every time either of them open their mouths, it’s all three at once: accurate scientific information (inform), a specific message like “anthropogenic climate change is real” (persuade), and jokes/humor/pop culture (delight).
Audience: Knowing your audience is pretty much the most essential part of science communication. It’s essential that you learn to custom tailor your message to those you want to reach. Basic science communication focuses on issues like level of education. Obviously, you can be much more technical with the audience at a scientific conference than with your neighbor. More advanced approaches to audience analysis in science communication focus on the goals, desires, values, and interests of the target audience. Effective science communication connects the speaker/writer’s purpose to the audience’s needs.
Context: Effective science communication needs to be adjusted to its context. The history of the issue at hand, the local politics, and the culture(s) involved all impact the way communication happens. Communicating about climate change in the US, for example, even if your goal is simply to inform about recent developments in modeling techniques, requires some attention to the political context. Without proper attention to context, your message may be misconstrued by or even lost among your audience. However, careful consideration of the above mentioned factors will help your audience more thoroughly understand the information you are providing to them.
 Gauchat, G. (2012). Policization of science in the public sphere: A study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review, 77, 197-187.
 Lewenstein, B.V. (2003). Models of public communication of science and technology. Public Understanding of Science, 1-7.
 Rowe, G. & Frewer, L. (2005). A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Science, Technology, & Human Values. 30(2), 251-290.
Science communication comes in many different varieties: academic research articles, press releases, poster presentations, TED Talks, op-ed pieces, grant proposals, public lectures, pod casts—you name it. Effective science communication requires not only knowing the communication triangle, but also mastering the genres you’ll need. Just like film (romantic comedy, action thriller) or books (spy novel, western), science communication also comes in regularized (and in some cases formalized) types, or genres as they are called by science communication experts. Knowing your way around a genre is about mastering both the rules and the conventions.
A good analogy here is driving. When you’re out in your car, your behavior is guided by the intersection of rules and conventions:
- Rule: Don’t drive over the speed limit. Convention: Except on I-10 because everyone speeds there and you’d be crazy not to.
- Rule: Signal to indicate your intent to turn. Convention: Flash lights to indicate an upcoming road hazard.
- Rule: Pass on the left (in the US). Convention: Unless you live in Milwaukee, WI and are at a stoplight, then for some weird reason, a bunch of people will pass you on the right.
Just like when driving, rules and conventions provide a general framework for how you should communicate in any given genre. Also, just like driving, where the rules and conventions can change from city to city or country to country, in science communication, the rules and conventions can change from context to context.
When most people think about genre, the first thing they think about are organizational chunks. Chunks are the major pieces or sections required or expected in any given genre. One of the clearest examples is the academic journal article. The standard chunks are introduction, review of the literature, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. But be careful: conventions are about more than just chunks. Chunks are part of the genre, but not all of the genre. Academic research articles also have stylistic conventions that are part of the genre as well. There is a certain style of writing that’s required in academic articles, a certain level of formality. That’s why, no matter how much you might want to write it, or how much it might be true, no journal editor will accept “Dude, these results are awesome!” as part of the discussion section.
Anytime you’re setting out to communicate in a new situation, you should always take time to familiarize yourself with the genre (rules and conventions) and the local context. Ask yourself four basic questions:
- What do I have to do?
- Where do I have freedom to be creative?
- What am I not ever allowed to do?
- How do I need to adjust my approach for the local context?
The goal of science communication is never just to provide information. First, that’s deficit model thinking and something to be avoided if you want to be successful. Second, even if communicating the facts is more or less your primary aim, you also have to convince public audiences that they should care, that they should be engaged with the information you’re providing. So, insofar as you want to reach the public and capture their attention, it’s essential that you cultivate specific strategies for public engagement.
Before we get to these strategies, however, it’s essential that we talk about how to reach the public. Although the academic journal article is the most common form of science communication, sadly research articles are seldom even read by the academics they are meant to reach. For one, it’s not possible. A recent study estimated that there are over 1.8 million research articles published annually in 28,000 journals. What’s more, only half are ever read beyond the authors, editors, and peer reviewers. When you add in ubiquitous paywalls and the relative density of scientific writing, it quickly becomes clear that journal articles are one of the least effective ways to reach the public.
The next medium most people think of is the press. To be sure, there are dedicated groups of science journalist out there whose sole job it is to bring scientific information to the public. But, getting media coverage is never guaranteed. Effective press releases can make it more likely, but even so, in our current media landscape, there are a lot of competing demands for attention. From presidential politics to foreign conflicts to the latest in celebrity gossip, the media has a lot to cover. Unfortunately, the latest innovations in science and technology are seldom at the top of their list.
Recognizing the challenges of this media environment, many in science communication and public engagement with science have started to develop new approaches to reaching the public. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in different types of public engagement strategies that scientists and researchers can not only use to reach the public, but also to engage them. Some of the post popular options include:
Science Pubs/ Science Cafes: Science Pubs and Science Cafes are basically what they sound like. An institution (university or museum, typically) hosts a public event at—you guessed it—a pub or a café. Researchers from that institution are on hand to talk to members of the public about their research. With proper institutional support and advertising, this can be an effective way to cultivate public interest in your local area. The most effective Science Pubs or Cafes are held regularly and are well-advertised. They develop a local following of interested individuals who are keen to learn more about the latest work being done in the science field.
Social Media Outreach: There is an increasing body of evidence which suggests that social media outreach can increase article download and citation rates. One study found that tweeting and retweeting on Twitter can increase citation rates by up to 11%. Of course, social media can also help scientists reach the public more directly. Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and Facebook, when used correctly, can be effective vehicles for engaging public audiences. However, effective social media outreach takes time and energy. It might seem like you can just create an academic Twitter account and blast your articles out into the ether for the public to find and read. While you technically can do that, it’s not going to be an effective strategy for public engagement. On most platforms, effective use of social media outreach involves building a following. You have to cultivate the kind of audience that wants to be engaged with your science. An alternative is to tap into someone’s preexisting social media audience. A number of scientists recently have made great use of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA). With the right topic, timing, and pitch, you can get thousands of people all over the world asking you questions about your latest research project.
Citizen Science: One fast-growing area of public engagement is citizen science. Citizen science is when you get members of the public involved in the actual research you conduct. Citizen science is especially popular in research areas like astronomy and entomology. No entomologist can be everywhere all the time. If you’re waiting for a seven-year brood to hatch, having hundreds or even thousands of engaged public citizens watching for the first sign can be a major help. In water science, local SCUBA clubs can serve as the home of a citizen science initiative. Dedicated recreational divers can you get a wide range of underwater measurements. Many citizen science initiatives are also supported by specialty smartphone apps. It’s not a requirement, but it can make data entry a lot easier.
This guide is designed to be a practical resource for those who wish to engage in public participation activities, but don’t know where to start. The goal of this guide is not to provide a magic formula, but rather to alert you to key challenges and considerations before you undertake the complex but rewarding process of public participation. Download .pdf.
The following are helpful online resources for improving your science communication and public engagement.
The Scientific Research Poster | Quick guide for designing effective research posters.
Secrets of Good Science Writing | A series of articles written by the Guardian staff on effective strategies for writing about scientific discoveries and pitching articles to journalists and newspaper editors.
Journalists Comment on Scientific Press Releases | A blog post inviting professional journalists to comment on scientific press releases in general. A lot of thoughts here on what not to do.
The Secret Structure of Great Talks | Public speaking expert Nancy Duarte offers a TED Talk on how to give a great TED Talk (or other public presentation).
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) | Purdue’s OWL is a recognized leader in free online guidance for all things academic writing. Offers everything from citation style guidelines to how-to articles on effective introductions or transitions.
PresentationZen | The website that launched the book. A blog exploring effective approaches PowerPoint design.
Elsevier | Gives helpful tips for how to effectively communicate science, as well as gives tips on crafting successful powerpoints.
Science and Social Media: Best Practices Inspired by @NASA | Social media outreach best practices with @NASA as a case study.
Sciencecafes.org | An interactive map of Science Cafés worldwide.
Scientists’ Guide to Social Media | AAAS Science Magazine’s helpful guide for scientists who want to use social media and want to use it well.
Choosing and Using Citizen Science | The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency’s guide on how and when to use citizen science. Outlines advantages and disadvantages with a clear decision framework to help aid your choice.
Pew Science Research | Provides many articles regarding the intersection between science communicators and the public.