What is science communication?

“Science communication is a growing area of practice and research. During the past two decades, the number of activities, courses, and practitioners has steadily increased. But what actually is science communication? In what ways is it different to public awareness of science, public understanding of science, scientific culture, and scientific literacy? The authors review the literature to draw together a comprehensive set of definitions for these related terms. A unifying structure is presented and a contemporary definition of science communication positioned within this framework. Science communication (SciCom) is defined as the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding. The definition provides an outcomes-type view of science communication, and provides the foundations for further research and evaluation” (Burns, O’Connor, and Stocklmayer 2003).

The passage above is from an article written by Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer (2003) titled “Science Communication: A contemporary definition.” This articulate piece has helped to fill a number of gaps in my understanding of the purpose and process of science communication. For these authors, science communication is not simply linear, it is “the process by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community” (Bryant, cited in Burns, O’Connor and Stocklmayer 2003).

Science communication can have a number of aims. These authors cite specifically increasing “public awareness of science” (including positive attitudes towards it), “public understanding of science” (including an understanding not just of its content but processes and social factors as well), “scientific literacy” (people are “aware of, interested and involved in, form opinions about, and seek to understand science), and a culture that is appreciative and supportive of science and scientific literacy. Science communication need not always focus on all of these at all times, but “it should never be done for its own sake… it must always have predetermined and appropriate aims” in order to for it to be effective.

The process of achieving these goals can be facilitated using a variety of approaches, a “toolbox” of sorts. According to this article, the toolbox includes skills, media, activities, and dialogue that enable the process of science communication. Skills include personal and interpersonal qualities such as being comfortable and effective interacting and communicating with the public and the media. Media and Activities help make science accessible to people with “a large range of personalities, learning styles, [and] social and educational backgrounds.” These include formal classroom education (such as in high school or college), presentations and seminars, and other courses and training programs. People can also be exposed to science through informal activities like visiting museums, watching films or reading media stories about science, or exploring science on the internet. Dialogue seems to be me to be one of the most important tools. As the article states, “In spite of the prevailing bias toward presenting science to the public, science communication as defined here cannot be considered a one-way dissemination of information to the lay public.” Instead, the conversation goes both ways, because while scientists may have the facts, the public has “local knowledge of, and interest in, the problems to be solved.” In other words, scientists have something to learn too. “All science practitioners are challenged to be science communicators.”

What I take away from this article is that science communication is broad – encompassing a large variety of subjects, actors, and aims – yet in practice is must be focused on specific outcomes for specific people. Science communication is a process in which anyone can play a role, not just scientists and journalists. Understanding this, it becomes difficult to generalize questions like “what makes scientific communication effective?” because the answer inevitably depends on who and what is involved. In my research, then, I will attempt not only examine the challenges and opportunities of science communication in practice for a variety of topics, but also examine the implications of those questions for the broader arena of science communication on a societal level.

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