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Six Takeaways on Science Communication from our Talk Back Better Webinar Series

The ISC concluded its successful webinar series on science communication. Nick Ishmael-Perkins, Senior Consultant at the ISC and host for the series, sums up the key takeaways from our weekly sessions that took place from May to June 2022.

In the last few years the ISC membership has become increasingly agitated about the challenges to confidence in science. While global polls suggests that in most countries, as an aggregate, trust in science has increased among the general public, there are still reasons to worry. First, these polls support the idea that trust varies greatly depending on the time of polling, the demographic polled and the scientific issue. Also, harassment of scientists has increased over the last two years. And there have been a number of high-profile examples through the COVID pandemic of major policy pronouncements that make a show of dismissing scientific expertise, for example in the U.S. or Brazil.

The ISC’s Public Value of Science programme convened five webinars. Called Talk Back Better, the series was delivered from the end of May through the month of June. The objective was to use a mix of discursive analysis and practical tips to help research organizations explore the capacities that would serve them best when communicating in the current global context.

These are six key takeaways from the series.

  1. We need to revisit how we think of the general public. The word ‘audience’ suggests a passive group, which in turn invokes the idea of science communication as a mission to educate a public which is uninformed and waiting. While there are moments for this, it does not reflect all that science communication can be. Nor does it reflect where science communication can be most effective. Beyond this we need to recognize that the general public is made up of constituencies. Each group with their own political orientation, collective experience, and worldview.
  2. We need to revisit how we think of the ‘anti-science’ movement. First, it would appear that many people’s positions on science and technology are very dependent on the specific issue. So that champions of climate change, may also be keen anti-vaxxers. Also, the emerging evidence on engaging with these contrary communities draws heavily on cognitive science and philosophy. This suggests some key considerations:
    – understand their values and concerns, remember to make decisions based not only on facts but also emotions and values, so you’ll need to find common ground,
    – be respectful and polite,
    – choose the right time (the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe when people are still in shock may not be as judicious as it first appears),
    – use their language,
    – remember change can take time.
  3. Digital platforms can be allies. The ‘platformatization of communication’ refers to the decentralized editorship and echo chambers of like-minded communities which are so pervasive in online environments. This phenomenon has a huge influence on how science is understood. However, there are some fairly simple steps scientists can take to engage these spaces constructively: draw on “elite cues” which are the reference points that signal credibility or interests for various platform users (each platform has its own ecosystem), don’t underestimate the value of video (even short) for increasing material visibility, think about your metadata as this increases visibility of your research in organic searches and look for data voids in the online space that your research can respond to. Speaking of data voids, translating your work to support language diversification can increase visibility and access to different communities. Finally, Wikipedia remains the most accessible site for most online searches and is a credible peer-reviewed repository.
  4. Climate change communication has grown more sophisticated about audiences. There are many lessons the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has learnt through their reports over the years. But it is significant that amidst the growing media attention they have grown consciously more focused. They are focused on a policy audience mobilized through the media but recognize the value of engaging the constituencies around the policy-makers and political leadership. As a result, they encourage partnerships with organizations who can produce ‘derivative materials’ from the reports, adapted to engage various publics or sectors. This is another example of the value of careful audience segmentation. Repeatedly panelists across the series observed the tendency of researchers to under-conceive their audiences.
  5. Research institutions need to be designed better for trust. Trust should be a core part of social capital that central communication offices cultivate and steward. This can then be engaged for researchers in multi-institutional collaborations. Unfortunately, too many institutions approach trust as an inherent right and don’t invest in the relationship building or transparency that underpins that. Crucially, there is also too little decent research about the ways that trust can be damaged and the impact that it has.
  6. Capacity building in science communication does not mean doing it all. The panel for this session quickly and thoughtfully mobilized around the idea that capacity for researchers in this area should focus on making a researcher a more capable consumer of communication services. In effect better able to distinguish what is good value, and this includes having an objective-focused approach to communication. This would also suggest that researchers need to be able to read the context they are communicating in.

The series was produced in partnership with the Falling Walls International Year of Scientific Engagement initiative.

Photo by Michal Czyz on Unsplash.

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