Moving beyond science communication toward engagement

PLoS Biology recently published an essay by Brooke Smith and colleagues, focused on “Navigating the rules of scientific engagement” Smith:COMPASS:2013. The authors represent COMPASS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the knowledge of ocean scientists to greater public awareness and influence in public policy decisions. The essay includes some insightful themes on bringing more effective modes of public engagement into scientific research. The essay is open access and under a Creative Commons license, so I’ll excerpt a few passages I think are especially worthwhile.

To begin with, the essay explains why engagement is a key concept in science communication:

Science communication was once considered primarily a unidirectional conveyance of information, based on the assumption that if scientists and other experts could convey their knowledge to the public, typically through data dumps," society's problems could be solved (i.e., if you knew what I know, you would believe what I believe). This perspective, the science deficit model of the public", is explored in a body of communications literature [6][8]. We know it does not work [9].
Communications is not only about speaking in a clear, compelling, and relevant manner, nor simply about promoting findings. Effective communications is an integrated process of understanding your audience and connecting with that audience on their terms. It requires listening as well as talking.
As practitioners within the evolving field of science communication, we've also adapted our approach to one that facilitates dialogue and encourages engagement. We've learned that if scientists want to have impact beyond their disciplines and in the world, communications must be central to their enterprise [10]. This is why academia should reconsider its measures of success and make communication training an integral part of graduate-level education.

The “deficit model” is the naive assumption made by many scientists, who may believe that the reason why the public misunderstands scientific concepts is that people just haven’t spent time learning the correct explanations. Of course, the public is heterogeneous and some people will be receptive to a simple explication of a scientific finding or principle. But in well-entrenched areas of misunderstanding of science, the deficit model is rarely an accurate picture. Talking “at” people is very likely to increase their resistance to scientific reasoning, precisely because it shows the scientists themselves to be unreasonable. As the essay discusses, listening and responding sincerely to an audience’s concerns and questions are fundamental parts of engagement.

The essay approaches the issue of “science by press release” with a heterodox viewpoint: Getting broad public attention for a controversial finding may in some cases help scientific progress, if the researchers are prepared to make productive use of critical commentary.

We remind the authors that making a splash in the mainstream press tends to incite controversy, whether over the science itself, the communication of it, or both. Backlash is never pleasant, but it is not necessarily negative [5]. In our experience, when the science is robust, and authors are committed to the questions instead of the results, criticism can catalyze productive collaborations and push the field forward.

The authors include an example along these lines, in which a controversial research result led to the creation of a collaborative group that broadened the scope and public application of the line of research.

This is a valuable insight:

Scientists who can clearly explain a research finding and why it matters are poised to succeed not just in outreach, but also in grant writing, interdisciplinary collaborations, teaching, and other essential roles. Being a good communicator is not a tradeoff; it is a key component of scientific success. Like most other elements of a strong academic career, it's a skill that may be rooted in natural talent and personal interest, but can always be further developed by training, preparation, and practice.

We work on making our students good communicators in many ways – from encouraging them to present their research to the public, school groups, at professional meetings, and in the university. Part of this strategy of multilevel communication is to enable students to discuss their work effectively at different lengths – from the “elevator talk” to a full research presentation.

But the COMPASS essay suggests to me that “listening” skills also need to be part of our training. I have learned over time the value of having many different ways to describe my research, so that I can deploy the most relevant and topical information to the person I’m meeting. Being able to do quickly switch contexts requires an ability to ask questions of other people, out of genuine interest in what they bring to the conversation. That is engagement.