How can we effectively communicate science to the public?
Has the scientific community dropped the ball on translating the message?
Vaccine expert, Dr Anna Blakney1 recently mentioned that “the pace of science is not matched by the pace of public communication”. This seems to be at play currently, with growing concern about the vaccine rollout, apparent bungles, finger pointing and what can only be baseless claims that the messaging is mixed and somehow, it is the government’s fault. Sensationalist journalism yearning for an explosive story appears to run with what will sell rather than report the facts. This is also a failing of the scientific community to adequately communicate to those without science knowledge.
Scientists are always passionate about their research and keen to discuss their findings but often fail to remember that not everyone will have the same level of understanding. Topics that require years of study can be so complex that a simple explanation barely seems to scratch the surface of what is really going on. Conversely, when research is shared in all its complexity, it can be misinterpreted, appear sinister and spread fear. The development of mRNA vaccines in response to COVID is a prime example of this.
Some believe that simply educating the populous with more information will lead to rational decision making. A recent study has shown this assumption to be false2 – not because people are irrational, but because we make decisions based on our own experiences and biases and ones that confirm our current worldview. The spread of misinformation and alternative facts have been linked to the constant change in messaging coming from our leaders and the rapidly moving vaccination program. Rapid changes like these can be difficult for some to accept given human nature’s desire for rules which provide us with clarity and stability within a society. The cool thing about science is it is autocorrecting – what was the best estimate of a reasoning in the past may well have been debunked considering new data, new technological advances, or perhaps better analytical measurements. To a scientist this is normal; to the uninitiated it may be confusing.
How do we develop a stronger foundation for effective communication
1. Tailor memorable and meaningful messages to the audience
Science can be complicated as many studies have a terrifically long back story to consume to bring you up to speed. At times it may feel scientists are talking in a foreign tongue – maybe we should employ a similar principle utilised in cryptic crosswords by providing questions and answers that you don’t require a PhD to understand. A scientific treatise has its place, however, communicating to those not in the club is equally essential, particularly in the public domain.
2. Relate science in the news messages to core values
We are fortunate in Australia; we have mainstream media with integrity. Our trusted national broadcaster, the ABC, has brilliant science communication, with rockstars like Dr Karl, Dr Norman Swan, Robyn Williams, and Natasha Mitchell all stepping up during this crisis. Easy to access information and free from cost and free from politicking.
Topical and accurate science communication relies on researchers giving their time to work with journalists. Dr Anna Blakney was recently featured by the CRS YSC (Controlled Release Society Young Scientist Committee) in their Back-to-Basics Workshop: Science Communication in the Wild World of TikTok. The workshop covered the progression from outreach programs at Imperial College, a video with Vogue Style, Reddit AMA, Team Halo that started as a collaboration between the United Nations and the Vaccine Confidence Project3 and most recently her own TikTok account with 217K followers helping to articulate science and making our scientific giants household names. Most of her audience would not know the impact Anna has made in this global pandemic herself, whilst at Imperial College, London, Anna worked on the saRNA vaccine using the Precision Nanosystems Ignite. You can learn about this here.
3. Get to the point and deliver messages in simple terms
Underestimating the public is fraught with danger, so supplying clear concise information that is accessible is paramount. The American Psychological Association stated “psychologists who study fake news warn that it’s an uphill battle, one that will ultimately require a global cooperative effort among researchers, governments, and social media platforms” 4 We should be in front of the issue by educating everyone, demystify the processes of science, tap into our homegrown ‘scientific rockstars’ to help deliver clear and accurate information that everyone can understand. Having an intelligent population that can critically think given the information and skills is possible and can benefit everyone. Up until 18 months ago, mRNA, a once-dismissed idea, was not widely recognised outside the scientific world, and has now become a leading technology in the COVID vaccine race with many other genetic medicines on the way.
Effective communication is key as public health messaging becomes a battleground of opinion, and the debate of whether to go with shock ads or a more subtle approach is followed by hours of airtime over their effectiveness or lack thereof. There is no simple solution, but if we take a look at some of the most influential scientists in the world, like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, etc. they all have one thing in common: their success was built on the results invariably born of a joint effort, benefiting from feedback, collaboration, teamwork and partnerships. By working together and effectively communicating scientific information, both scientists and non-scientists can help to overcome the great challenges of our time.
If you would like to know more about how ATA Scientific assists in promoting better science communication, how we invest in early career researchers with our travel grants or would like insight into how to move your research from discovery to the clinic, please contact Peter Davis email@example.com .
1) Dr Anna Blakney – Assistant Professor University of British Columbia Vancouver Canada.
2) Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda,
3) Vaccine Confidence Project, search Professor Heidi J. Larson, Director.
4) ‘Controlling the spread of misinformation’ Accessed 8 July 2021,