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Science Communication Research: Past Patterns and Future Perspectives

BY Alexander Gerber 

Just like other research fields coming of age, science communication may ask itself which patterns have characterised its development over the past decades, which topics and methodologies were particularly often used, and what this can tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the research field. An in-depth empirical analysis has explored exactly these questions. The results were recently published as a book, which also comprises reflections by the world’s leading science communication scholars about the field’s future needs and perspectives. 

The study triangulates a bibliometric and content analysis of approx. 3,000 journal papers with a multi-stage panel study and a review of grey literature spanning four decades. Quantitative findings from the journal analysis (e.g. about disciplinary contexts or topics, research methods, data analysis techniques used) were discussed by a panel of 36 science communication researchers in a multi-stage series of qualitative interviews. These experts represent the international and disciplinary diversity of the research field, including past and present editors of the most relevant journals of science communication such as PUS (Sage).

The study provides evidence that Science Communication Research (SCR) has ‘matured’ as an academic field. Not only has the absolute number of journals papers on SCR increased significantly over the past four decades, particularly in the last 15 years, but is especially the case for research studies, compared for instance to commentaries and essays. The proportion of research studies has steadily increased over time (particularly with the advent of PUS in 1992), from a median of 24% in 1979-1999 (7 studies in total) to a median of 37% since the year 2000 (43 studies in total). The variety of institutions, techniques and disciplines in SCR contributes to its diversity but may also indicate a lack of a clear theoretical framing.

The original Anglo-American leadership in SCR has definitely been rendered ‘history’. Contributions are much more globally diverse nowadays. Overall, the long-established dominance of US and UK institutions still has its legacy: every single one of the top-20 institutions with the largest SCR outputs over time is located in the US or the UK, except for the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands). The data clearly indicates a ‘long tail’ pattern here (i.e. comparatively few very productive institutions and then many equally much less productive ones). Prior to 1995, institutions from fewer than 10 countries contributed to the three core SCR journals in any one year. Since then, this number has increased steadily and peaked in 2014 with articles written by authors from 37 different countries. Particularly the share of publications by authors from Europe has increased: figures for the past five years of this data analysis (2012-2016), show Europe (51%) well in front of North America (29%). 

Philanthropy-driven funding programmes for SCR are quite common in the US and the UK, but much less so in most other parts of the world. A first major SCR funding programme outside of the Anglo-American world, is the one on the “Science of science communication” and the transferability of research into practice, launched in 2020 by the German Volkswagen Foundation (“Science communication cubed”).

Our study points towards five ‘Grand Challenges’ that SCR is facing:

  1. Most research papers have reported ‘one-off’ studies compared to only 3% having a longitudinal design (a proportion that has even declined in the past 5 years, whereas pre/post studies have increased further). Our study, therefore, discusses the challenge of a field being constrained by case-specific studies about the use of certain tools in certain cultural contexts for certain research areas. More longitudinal, comparative and systemic research is needed to understand how contents and channels, actors and audiences interrelate. This will most likely also require more openness methodologically, such as the use of data-mining to analyse large data sets.

  2. As multi-disciplinarily as the field of SCR is, its fragmentation also comes with the risk of being caught in established disciplinary structures and habits. Scientific communities such as in Media Studies or Marketing, Sociology of Science or Social Psychology often use different jargon, and present their results at different conferences and in different journals. The opportunity of an interdisciplinary integration of the different research traditions has not been seized yet.

  3. In addition to these inner-academic challenges, the field is affected by a second disconnect—between scholarship and practice, neither of which take sufficient notice of the other’s priorities, challenges and solutions. The untapped potential for transfer and collaboration is enormous.

  4. Numerous conferences over the past few years have identified a direct result of this double-disconnect: a lack of application and implementation, experimentation and applied research in SCR.

  5. The field lacks diversity in its research topics so that certain publics and actors are not acknowledged sufficiently, particularly margina¬lised people or those generally uninterested in science, partisan and influential pressure-groups, etc. Furthermore, our data show that the trend towards life sciences as a disciplinary focus in SCR has increased even further, which is why the study recommends looking at the entire spectrum of (not just natural) science and (not just technical) innovation. This should also include contributions from the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Experts interviewed and research literature analysed in our study, also indicate how and why SCR falls short of addressing these Grand Challenges, summarised in these four clusters of research gaps:

  1. Changing information behaviour and attitude-formation: Systemic changes in the digitalised media environments are not yet sufficiently understood, including the recent debates about ‘post-truth’ and data-driven mass-manipulation. In general, science communication often appears more relevant when topics are more controversial. Our study has identified research gaps in understanding the formation of societal values and public trust with regard to science and innovation. Research topics could for instance be communicating either consensus or uncertainty, responding to misinformation and framing effects.

  2. Rapidly changing media systems: Digitisation brings about not only new means and tactics but even entirely new actors in communication such as journalistic media platforms which are not ‘journalistically independent’ in a classic sense.  Formerly established intermediaries are replaced. SCR should analyse these systemic changes as well as suggesting and experimenting with alternative models and practices.

  3. Evaluation of policy impacts: How to measure and compare the impact of communication on science and innovation policy and regulation is another research gap. This should include not merely institutional or journalistic impact but also political influence from organised interests such as pressure groups and lobbyism. Particularly for statutory regulation processes, there is a lack of both methods and impact measurement for formal science engagement such as citizen participation processes from an agenda-setting perspective.

  4. Communication Governance: Research funders increasingly expect or even require specific forms of communication as part of their funding and/or assessment of proposals and results (e.g. RRI by the European Commission; REF and KEF in the UK; Transfer Projects in Germany). It is therefore not surprising that scientific institutions increasingly discuss science communication issues from a governance perspective, both regarding its institutional structures and culture. This raises research questions as to how such a communication, now an integral part of the academic conduct itself, should be managed and monitored (e.g. regarding incentives and recognition), and how its impact can best be assessed.

To address the above-mentioned challenges and gaps, our study also makes a number of recommendations for adjusting the research agenda in science communication, for instance towards future funding schemes.

As a ‘proof of concept’, many conclusions and recommendation from our study are comparable to previous (non-empirical) attempts to summarise the historic development of the field, such as Bucchi & Trench’s introduction to their collection of “Major Works” (2016), and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ (NASEM) report on “Communicating Science Effectively” (Hall-Jamieson et al. 2016).

More information:

This study is available (fully open-access) as an e-book and audio-book under Creative Commons licence: [Gerber, A. et al. (2020): Science Communication Research: an Empirical Field Analysis. Edition innovare. ISBN: 978-3-947540-02-0. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.4028704.]

Professor Alexander Gerber is Programme Director for Science Communication at Rhine-Waal University in Germany, and Research Director at the non-profit Institute for Science and Innovation Communication (inscico). Professor Gerber was Project Lead for the Research Field Analysis described in the article above. The spectrum of his research crosses what is often seen as the divide between scholarship and practice, working towards science communication as an agent of social innovation. 
Together with Dr. Eric Jensen, he established the “Evidence-Based Science Communication” school of thought (2020, see the Manifesto published at Frontiers). Professor Gerber coordinated a pan-European initiative that led to a joint declaration on “Mainstreaming Responsible Research and Innovation” (published in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, 2020), based on his initial reflections on “How to ‘mainstream’ the ‘upstream’ engagement” (Journal of Science Communication, 2018).
The author is an elected member of the Scientific Committee of the global science communication network PCST (Public Communication of Science and Technology). He serves as a member of several Advisory Boards and is engaged in the associations EASST, iSMA, and IAMCR.

Professor Gerber can be reached via LinkedIn, and his Twitter handle is @inscico.
His Open Research ID (ORCID) is 0000-0002-9737-1267.