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The Missing Link in Science Communications Training

by on November 5, 2016

Are scientists any good at communications? A lot of people – including scientists – would say “no.” A whole industry has built up around the idea that scientists can be trained to improve their skills as public communicators. It’s been part of my own business too: the company I co-own, Intermedia Communications Training, has been working with professional scientists – mostly Conservation Biologists – for the past 20 years. Is the collective enterprise of training scientists to become better communicators actually producing results?

We were surprised a few years ago when a group of researchers contacted us to participant in a survey they were doing to answer this question. They were interviewing communications training organizations (like ours), asking what exactly we were teaching, and what did we see scientists learning. Their plan was to see if they could spot any patterns and perhaps identify gaps.

Their research has now been published in the journal Science Communication. It contains some valuable insights not just for scientists, but for everyone who believes that science must be communicated well to the rest of the world: in policy making, health and safety, education, economic planning, and many other realms. One of the researchers, Anthony Dudo, agreed to answer my questions about their work:

Question 1: What patterns has your research revealed among the providers of science communications training?

Answer: It was a privilege for our research team to conduct in-depth interviews with this group of folks. The 24 science communication trainers we spoke to are all dedicated and passionate when it comes to helping improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) experts’ outreach. One characteristic that stood out among this group is their open-mindedness when it comes to how they do their work—all of them seem hungry for feedback and eager to tweak their training methods.

This is an important pattern because it means the community doing the most crucial work at the forefront of building scientists’ communication skills welcomes input from and exchanges with the academic community. This group is self-aware, realizes that it is doing high-stakes work, and aspires to improve.

We also found some clear patterns in terms of how trainers think scientists view public engagement and the nature of the training itself. The trainers commonly suggested that scientists come to the training experience with a narrow set of communication goals, often focused on something quite broad (e.g., improving society) or on their own individual achievement.

Trainers seem to welcome discussions with scientists about their goals for public engagement when they occur, but training most commonly focuses on helping scientists share their research in clear ways to increase knowledge. We see this focus as evidence of a commonplace ‘journalistic model of training’ that centers on helping scientists share information more effectively through the development of discrete communication skills, such as removing jargon, development elevator talks, etc.

This was the first crack at interviewing this group of people but we’re hoping we’ll have a chance to re-interview them in the years ahead. Once we start do to that, we hope we’ll start to see changes in how they approach their work.


Question 2:
 Where did you find significant gaps in the training offered – in other words, what are scientists not getting when it comes to communications skills?

Answer: What seems to be missing is the development of a more holistic sense of public engagement. Improving discrete communication skills should be a key part of public engagement training, but the apparent priority given to developing these skills is limiting. We were especially interested to see how often trainers try to help scientists identify and achieve particular communication objectives. Not often, it appears.

Only a few of the trainers interviewed indicated that, at that time, they were explicitly trying to help scientists achieve non-knowledge objectives such as fostering excitement about science, building trust in the scientific community, or reframing how people think about certain issues.

Question 3: What are the possible consequences of scientists not being skilled at the strategic communications skills you identified as missing?

Answer: As public relations practitioners know well, strategic thinking is essential to effective communication: different types of communication are needed for different types of audiences and interactions to achieve different types of objectives. Thinking through that reality – and having a specific communication objective in mind – should be an inherent part of science communication.

Seeking to educate and inform is a perfectly legitimate objective for scientist communicators in many instances, but it’s only one of many possible objectives. In that regard, there’s an opportunity for the training community to help scientists more clearly identify specific objectives for their engagement efforts, and to realize that there is a broader menu of objectives they should consider. Or, as a financial planner would say, trainers can help scientists develop an increasingly diversified communication portfolio.

Failing to diversify scientists’ communication capacity, at minimum, risks perpetuating the decades-long habit of defining engagement as a tool that exists almost exclusively to teach the public and correct scientific misinformation. Beyond that consequence, failing to integrate strategic communication insights into training risks pursing communication tactics that have little (or no) potential impact or, worse, actually diminish people’s views of science.

The communication source and his or her tone, for example, can matter greatly. The extensive research on the importance of warmth judgments in whether we trust others implies that training should explicitly help scientists avoid doing the types of things that might convey a cold, standoffish demeanor. And related research on fairness perceptions emphasizes the potential strategic value of ensuring that people feel like they are being listened to and treated with respect. The clearest information transmission alone, therefore, can be met with blank stares or disdain if it falls short on other levels.

One important caveat: effective strategic communication is genuine. Scientists should not fake things like personal warmth or active listening. Instead, the focus should be placed on helping scientists to become more comfortable sharing their warmth and openness when they communicate. Trainers also can help scientists recognize that being rude to people they disagree with, for example, may have unintended negative consequences for the scientific community.

Question 4: Did you get a sense from the trainers that scientists themselves are not seeking these longer-term skills, or is the problem more that trainers are not offering it? What do you think could be done to improve the situation?

Answer: Both, but we see that as completely understandable because the intense focus on science communication we’re witnessing is relatively new. In this study, we set out to better identify the nature of high-profile science communication training so that we could help the community see where it is excelling and spot opportunities for growth.

We’re hopeful that this study—and related insights being unearthed in our larger research program and the work of our colleagues—will help scientist communicators and trainers broaden their view of public engagement. In this case, the “fix” is relatively straightforward: training curriculums can integrate more insights from strategic communication to impart a more sophisticated approach to audience analysis and goal setting. The challenge for researchers is that we need to make that research accessible to non-academics.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s an encouraging sign that the training and academic communities are increasingly interfacing about this topic. Both groups care deeply about improving scientists’ public engagement and both groups can address this goal more effectively working together.

Question 5: What’s the next step for your research team?

Answer: This study represents the first of a multi-phase NSF-supported project our team is conducting. We used the insights gained from these interviews to design a survey instrument that we’ve since fielded with more than 8,000 scientists who are members of at least one of eight different U.S.-based professional scientific societies.

We’ve recently completed data collection and we’re just now beginning to sift through and analyze this massive data set. We’ll be able to examine many aspects of public engagement, including scientists’ attitudes and behaviors, the communication objectives they (de)prioritize, their views of and experiences with communication training, and the types of support they receive—or don’t—from their institutions to partake in outreach. Please stay tuned.

For more information on this study and our larger research project on scientists and public engagement, please view our webpage: strategicsciencecommunication.com. There you can find copies of our papers and presentations, 2-page information sheets about different communication objectives for science public engagement, the research team’s biographical details and contact information, and more. The site also has an area for comments that you can use to share your thoughts and questions with us.

Anthony Dudo is an Assistant Professor is an assistant professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on scientists’ public engagement activities, media representations of science and environmental issues, and the contributions of informational and entertainment media to public perceptions of science.

Tim Ward is the co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training and co-author of The Master Communicator’s Handbook – a resource for experts and thought leaders seeking to create meaningful change.

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