8 May 2017

Communicating science: four strategies to get the message across

Posted by shanlon

By Mafalda Marques Carapuço

Science communication is a challenging task as there is no universal solution that can be used in all cases. This is a major challenge for scientists who believe that communicating science to non-scientists is part of their social responsibility.

To help scientists in the process of communicating science and fostering the transfer of scientific knowledge outside of the scientific community, four strategies can be adopted to get the message across: outreach, crowdsourcing, management-oriented tools and co-production. Each strategy conveys the message in a different way according to the audience specificities and generates different types of feedback.

  • Outreach: likely the most widely known strategy to communicate science. Outreach arises as the most adequate approach for transferring scientific knowledge when the objective of scientists is to raise scientific literacy and awareness of an audience that is scarcely engaged into science. In outreach, the message to be conveyed can be framed within a wide range of options, including giving talks at local schools or supporting teachers in developing resources.
  •  Crowdsourcing: covers a part of open science in which the general public can participate in scientific research by providing data. The public benefits from having an active role in the scientific process leading to their empowerment, and scientists benefit from the generation of data. The development of specific web applications and the use of social networks, as Facebook and Twitter, are major opportunities to foster generation of data in the scope of crowdsourcing. Some initiatives under the Citizen Science Framework have already been developed within crowdsourcing namely in the context of public participatory monitoring.
  •  Management-oriented tools: designed to support the generation of information. More than providing access to data, management-oriented tools aim to turn data into specify information readily usable to support management activities. For example, “The Digital Coast”, a NOAA-sponsored website, was specifically developed to meet the unique needs of the coastal management community. This platform provides access to a very significant number of science-based GIS (Geographic Information System) tools capable of generating spatial information targeting different coastal issues. Available tools include web applications to compute the rate of shoreline change, and to create maps of potential ecological, social, and economic impacts from rising seas and changing climate.
  •  Co-production: a collaborative process that takes place in “middle ground” and stimulates the integration of different types of knowledge – scientific and non-scientific. It can be described as a process where participants “contribute to” and “collaborate in” the co-generation of knowledge.

    Scientists (on the left) can adopt fours strategies to communicate science to non-scientists (on the right): outreach, crowdsourcing, management-oriented tools and co-production. Each strategy conveys the message in a different way according to the audience specificities and generates different types of feedback. Outreach leads to literacy and awareness; crowdsourcing to the generation of data; management-oriented tools generate information; and co-production boosts co-generation of knowledge.

Co-production can be considered the ultimate goal – the “last mile” – in science communication. In co-production, scientists and their audience work together and the probability of success in getting the message across is higher. However, co-production requires high levels of engagement among those involved. To narrow the gap between scientists and their audience other strategies to communicate science arise as fundamental.

Scientists (on the left) can adopt fours strategies to communicate science to non-scientists (on the right): outreach, crowdsourcing, management-oriented tools and co-production. Each strategy conveys the message in a different way according to the audience specificities and generates different types of feedback. Outreach leads to literacy and awareness; crowdsourcing to the generation of data; management-oriented tools generate information; and co-production boosts co-generation of knowledge.

It is important to highlight that communicating science is not only positive for those involved but when the interaction between scientists and non-scientists is effective, science thrives. Furthermore, science is increasingly interdisciplinary and the ability to communicate more effectively across disciplines (e.g., natural and social sciences) fosters scientists and institutions’ collaboration, which certainly leads to more sustainable approaches.

Scientists should step outside their comfort zone and put additional efforts to communicate science outside scientific community. For sure, science communication to non-scientists is time-consuming and challenging – but it’s surely worth it.

-Mafalda Marques Carapuço is a research fellow at Portuguese Institute for the Ocean and Atmosphere. Her research focuses on the development of approaches to improve the transfer of scientific knowledge to non-scientific audiences. Her goal is to contribute to a knowledge-based society, a vital step towards sustainability.