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Equipping scientists with the skills to engage public audiences

Scientists are increasingly expected to step out of their ivory towers and engage with policy makers and diverse public audiences. These demands come from not only those who fund and support research, but also from public interest groups and society at large. Some scientists respond enthusiastically to such opportunities. These ‘communicating scientists’ typically have a flair for public speaking and popular writing and they enjoy media interviews and public platforms. However, they are the exceptions. Most scientists shy away from the media and the public spotlight.

One of the barriers that prevent scientists from participating in public communication is a self-perceived inability (or lack of skills) to communicate about their work in a popular style. After all, as far as communication goes, scientists’ training focuses on communicating to peers within the science arena. This communication ‘within science’ is done using the semantics of science and sticking to strict scientific norms that require dry, technical writing, characterised by objectivity and a high level of detail. In contrast, popular science writing demands ‘humanising’ the science by using easy-to-understand language, telling captivating stories and anecdotes, making the science personal (i.e. revealing the scientists behind the science), demonstrating enthusiasm for the topic and linking research to everyday life in order to make it relevant to specific audiences.

Recognising this skills gap, leading science organisations around the world are now offering a wide range of training courses. These courses vary extensively in terms of objectives, content and nature as can be seen in the map below.

The map provides just some examples of a much wider/longer list of training courses on offer


Research into science communication training.

Given the boom in communication training for scientists around the world, researchers in the field are interested in this topic. Since 2016, several best practice insights and research articles focused on science communication training have been published. This includes interviews with the trainers to find out about their goals when they offer science communication training courses and a study that focused on the communication goals of scientists, as well as research looking more broadly at the learning goals of science communication training programmes.

While many training programme are likely to be orientated towards practical skills (for example, teaching scientists how to use social media more effectively), recent research points to the value of a more comprehensive type of engagement training which incorporates learning theory. In the midst of all this diversity, scholars are calling for standardizing a core curriculum and resources that can be shared and used across different institutions and countries. In 2019, an informal network of science communication trainers, mostly based in the US, developed a preliminary framework of foundational skills for science communication.This proposal highlights the need for a robust network that will allow the sharing of best practice, learning goals and curricula between science communication trainers across the globe.

Scholars generally agree that we have limited evidence regarding the most useful and effective type of communication training for researchers. We also know relatively little about which desired training outcomes to aim for, or whether scientists who have participated use the new skills they have learned. There are many opportunities for science communication scholars to contribute to a shared understanding of best practice when it comes to science communication training.

By Marina Joubert & Luisa Massarani

Comments

  1. Sometimes I think the communication courses must be tailor made so they can be specifically directed to certain scientist in a certain field.. biotechnology for example is a science that needs to be communicated effectively as it faces a lot of resistance and myths that have replaced the actually reality. I would suggest tailor making science communication courses....that way they can make more impact and your efforts are measurable as you would have directed to a particular intended field .Either way I still feel you are doing an amazing job and hope one day you can expose Zimbabwean scientists to your communication programs. We are in need of them.

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    1. Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I fully agree with you that scicomm training should be adapted according to the field of research. If you could send me your email address to marinajoubert[at]sun.ac.za, I could let you know about our online science communication course.

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  2. Many universities in the UK offer training in communication for researchers (this can be for different media and audiences). The VITAE organisation and support for researcher development has led to these courses being offered. It differs from institution to institution as to what is on offer. Some courses are run by in house staff (like public engagement teams and/or communication teams) other institutions may bring in external trainers or experts to offer support. What is on offer can vary a lot from place to place. Take up of these courses can differ massively too. I know ones that are always oversubscribed and others that struggle to attract researchers to attend.

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    1. Dear Heather, thank you for the interesting information. I guess we are hoping to work towards some kind of 'standardisation' (taking into account differences across countries, fields, institutions, etc), to help ensure high-quality training. What you say about uptake is particularly interesting ... so the question is ... what makes the difference between those who battle to attract interest and those who are over-subscribed. Do we need some research from the trainers' perspectives? What do you think?

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