Scientists spend most of their time trying to improve the world through their discoveries. These findings could be related to increasing our understanding of basic scientific processes that will move science forward. Or they could be providing in-depth knowledge about a particular disease which can lead to an improved quality of life for those patients. Both of these approaches can therefore be beneficial in more broadly influencing societal factors that depend on the advancement of science. However, making these exciting discoveries without the ability to communicate their importance to a variety of audiences will severely diminish the potential of this work to positively affect society. This is an important reason why teaching science communication skills to scientists is critical for highlighting the value of their work.
The need for science communication training
However, making these exciting discoveries without the ability to communicate their importance to a variety of audiences will severely diminish the potential of this work to positively affect society. This is an important reason why teaching science communication skills to scientists is critical for highlighting the value of their work. But science communication is not a very well-developed discipline within universities where many scientists work, and this is a problem particularly for young scientists who are building their reputation on these initial discoveries which they could make early on in their careers. Being able to discuss their findings with both scientists and nonscientists is critical for their own career advancement, in terms of obtaining funding and being able to disseminate work to their peers in a manner that is clear and understandable. It is also important for them to be able to explain their work to the public who is more likely to support science if they can understand the broader importance of these discoveries.
Part of the reason why science communication isn’t properly taught in universities is that the current scientific system wasn’t built to incorporate and value other skills besides the ability to perform research in a laboratory setting. Therefore, there are no incentives from supervisors to encourage the young scientists working in their laboratories to take time away from their research to learn science communication skills. In order for scientists to become skilled at communication skills, a cultural change is necessary. There needs to be a shift in thinking towards accepting science communication as an essential skill for training scientists. This needs to occur at multiple levels, including universities employing young scientists to make these discoveries, publishing companies which are instrumental to the dissemination of this information, and funding agencies who can support the continuation of this work.
Changing the culture of science communication
Future of Research advocates for professional development skills such as science communication to be valued and included in the way that we are training young scientists today. We published a piece of work entitled “Changing the culture of science communication training for junior scientists,” describing our views on how this culture change can occur.1,2
The first step to this change is understanding why science communication is important in a broader sense and what the goals should be.1,2 Being able to effectively communicate science can help advance our understanding of what scientists do and how they make discoveries. This is why it is so important for them to be able to describe what they do to various groups who can support them, including policymakers and the public itself. While scientists may be taught to an extent how to talk about their science to their own lab groups, this is typically not enough for them to be able to explain their science to just anyone in a way that is accessible. Potential ways to disseminate this work to other audiences is by going to a school to talk about their work in simpler terms, doing a demonstration at a science center, or making a video about their science to be shared on you tube, in order to show the next generation what a scientist looks like and what they do. This can also extend to events such as Capitol Hill Days where scientists convey the importance of their work to policymakers. These initiatives can, in turn, affect society more broadly, because these additional audiences will now be educated in and understand why they should support research.
Institutional support for science communication
Depending on the audience that scientists want to reach with their science, as well as how they want to use that knowledge to benefit society, they will need to be taught different methods for communication. This is where the importance of developing multiple ways of teaching scientists to communicate is readily apparent. However, this is also highly challenging given the lack of investment from universities in offering and developing programs that will support the integration of science communication into their professional development, and potentially the larger challenge that this skill may not be viewed as valuable by those responsible for this development.3,4 This readily includes supervisors, department chairs, and those who are developing graduate curricula, but can also extend beyond this to the fact that there is no clear system to evaluate whether or how this skill is taken into account in grant applications or promotions for young scientists looking to move up the career ladder.
While some universities are beginning to recognize the need to teach this skill, this is far from standardized in a way that young scientists can uniformly learn these necessary skills. And in a culture where we only expect young scientists to make scientific discoveries, without teaching them how to communicate it, all this valuable knowledge will be lost by not being able to reach a large segment of the population. In some cases, this type of training is also discouraged by individual investigators and departments, and there is no system that currently integrates science communication training into the professional development of young scientists in universities.5,6
Science communication resources
While this publication highlights a few existing examples of science programs and resources that exist outside the university, we were unable to find a comprehensive resource for science communication online that we could utilize to come up with an extensive list to recommend. Thus we highlighted a few resources we were aware of from our own experiences, raising awareness for the need to develop such a resource. For simplicity, one example from a scientific society is the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Art of Science Communication online course (www.asbmb.org/Outreach/Training/ASC/); one example from an organization is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (www.aldacenter.org/training); and one example of science communication trainers is Alaina G. Levine, Quantum Success Solutions (www.alainalevine.com). Given the lack of science communication resources that can be easily found and applied, many young scientists have developed their own initiatives, for example groups like the Science Policy, Education, and Communication (SPEaC) Club at UT Southwestern (https://speacatutsw.wordpress.com/). However, there are likely many more such initiatives out there which are difficult to find without an organized system.
Advocating for a science communication training program
Thus, we advocate for a comprehensive science communication training program with multiple phases to be implemented in universities. The first phase would consist of multiple training elements – such as seminars, workshops, writing opportunities, as well as a centralized online resource for science communication, among others. The second phase would be devising methods for evaluating these science communication programs, including longitudinal tracking. In the third and final phase, this program would result in multiple products, including publications and opportunities to better understand the barriers towards and incentives for universities to implement these types of programs1.
In order to provide training in science communication for young scientists and incentivize universities to develop these programs, it could be beneficial to implement mechanisms for integrating this training into courses, graduation requirements, or as part of training grants. An alternative option would be allocating a particular amount of the grant money specifically for these activities to be used in training graduate students. For faculty, receiving recognition for engaging in science communication in a way that would count for their funding, tenure and promotion requirements would also aid with acceptance of these skills as being necessary for their career advancement.
The value of science communication
In order to better understand how to improve science communication training for scientists, the field itself needs to be developed more, which is beginning to happen, such as in the National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on “The Science of Science Communication” focusing on various aspects of science communication 2,7–11 through presentations and additional discussions for multiple years. Ultimately, increased recognition for the value of science communication both within and outside academic environments is necessary in order to enable young scientists to participate in societal change.
Image credit: Ron Mader (link here)
- Bankston, A. & McDowell, G. Changing the Culture of Science Communication Training for Junior Scientists. J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. 90, (2018).
- Committee on the Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education & National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Communicating science effectively: A research agenda. 152 (National Academies Press, 2017). doi:10.17226/23674.
- Forrester, N. The next generation of science outreach. NatureJobs (2017) at <http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2017/04/14/the-next-generation-of-science-outreach/>.
- McCall, L. et al. What counts? Evaluating public communication in tenure and promotion. (American Sociological Association, 2016).
- Raoul Tan, T. L. & Potocnik, D. Are you experienced? Junior scientists should make the most of opportunities to develop skills outside the laboratory. EMBO Rep. 7, 961–964 (2006).
- Benderly, B. L. The sad state of professional development programs for scientists. Science (2017). doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1700029.
- National Academy of Sciences. The Science of Science Communication. National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia (2012) at <http://www.nasonline.org/programs/sackler-colloquia/completed_colloquia/science-communication.html>.
- Fischhoff, B. The sciences of science communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110 Suppl 3, 14033–14039 (2013).
- Fischhoff, B. & Scheufele, D. A. The science of science communication II. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111 Suppl 4, 13583–13584 (2014).
- National Academy of Sciences. The Science of Science Communication II. National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia (2013). at <http://www.nasonline.org/programs/sackler-colloquia/completed_colloquia/agenda-science-communication-II.html>
- National Academy of Sciences. The Science of Science Communication III . National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia (2017). at <http://www.nasonline.org/programs/sackler-colloquia/completed_colloquia/Science_Communication_III.html>