We live in an information age, where reams of new data are available on every matter of scientific inquiry. But these advances have only created challenges for communicators of scientific information. Scientists scour raw data and transform them into new information and knowledge but employing this knowledge to produce behavioural change in the voting, eating, and carbon-emitting public is the job of science communicators. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and other interest groups may all wish to communicate scientific evidence to influence the public. As communication culture shifts, communicators should consider that some conditions enable effective information exchange while other conditions hamper its reception. Evidence does not speak for itself, so how can science communicators ensure that information is understood, believed, and used?
Many barriers may impede conveying information effectively. For example, social norms shape how information is perceived: norms can obstruct or facilitate the acceptance of information in particular social groups. Political affiliation has been demonstrated to significantly impact whether scientific information is perceived as trustworthy (Farrow et al., 2017; Fielding & Louis, 2020). For example, people are more likely to support climate change policies when they are advanced by members of their favoured political party.
While the structure of academic institutions facilitates interconnection between some fields of study, it divides others. The modern bifurcation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) has discouraged knowledge sharing between these two broad areas of research and education. A lack of cultural or emotional expertise has prevented STEM-generated knowledge from reaching some demographic communities. Traditionally, science has been communicated vertically from a designated expert, often from a STEM subject area, down to members of the public. In communities where trust in public institutions is scarce, a one-sided information stream that lacks awareness of cultural interpretations may fail to convince some social groups.
Another obstacle to effective information transfer is jargon. Technical language is difficult for large segments of the public to understand. Often, key messages are drowned in specialized terminology and concepts. Technical language can even prevent scientists in different fields from understanding science communication. Alan Alda, actor and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, put it succinctly: “scientists can’t expect to get their message across to nonscientists if they can’t get it across to each other” (Thorp, 2020, p. 1363). Communicators should be wary, however, of oversimplifying their messages. Oversimplification may lead knowledge recipients to wrongly assume solutions are simpler than they are (Burrows et al., 2020).
Lastly, a lack of coordination among organizations with shared missions impedes harmonized efforts to transfer knowledge to the public. Among small to medium sized NGOs, for example, groups allied around a cause often lack the funding and staff necessary to build “communities of practice” to share their best communication and education strategies (Jones et al., 2022). Where networks do not exist, initiatives and information cannot be amplified and efforts to communicate information may be duplicated. Governments and large NGOs often also lack relationships with small organizations and their networks, which are well-placed to mobilize information into their respective communities. The absence of community collaboration is a missed opportunity for coordinated messaging.
Experts are exploring opportunities for improving the communication of scientific information. Alan Alda observed the degradation of public trust in science at the hands of slapdash internet communication (Thorp, 2022). While Alda has valid criticisms of the communication styles that have flourished in the internet age, a wealth of opportunities also exists to use digital tools to improve scientific communication. Evidence indicates that most people prefer online versions of information (Connors et al., 2022). Infographics and interactive graphics are by far the most popular options, but videos and scientific figures perform comparably. Text-based options, however, are unpopular by comparison (Connors et al., 2022). By listening to input from target audiences, scientists can produce more relevant information packages, such as frequently asked questions (FAQ) sections and social media postings (Connors et al., 2022).
An interdisciplinary approach enables science communication tailored to particular demographic communities. HASS fields have shown that communications must incorporate cultural considerations to be accepted by the public, especially those segments that have been historically excluded from dominant forms of science communication. Since the 1980s, academic findings in HASS fields have illustrated that incorporating local knowledge and culture in communication initiatives is crucial to building support and trust (Green & Troup, 1999).
A collaborative mindset also lends itself to opportunities for improving damaged relationships between the public and scientific authorities (Burrows et al., 2022). More informal, reciprocal communication methods boost public awareness of policy issues, especially in the case of environmental science (Jones et al., 2021). Hosting ongoing two-way conversations, different from the traditional one-sided and infrequent presentation of research findings, will contribute to a more robust, resilient, and informed public discourse (Jones et al., 2021).
Targeted Messaging. Policymakers, politicians, scientists, regulators, businesses, and citizens are all different audiences that require information presented in different ways. Martel-Morin and Lachapelle (2022) explain that ideologies, values, and worldviews act as a “perceptual filter,” which substantially influences how an individual digests information. To mediate this factor, the authors suggest use of “framing,” where the same information is presented with separate emphases to speak to different audience groups (Martel-Morin & Lachapelle, 2022).
Similarly, tailoring communication to local audiences by highlighting the localized impact of an issue can increase citizen engagement (Hoffman, 2020). Climate change, for example, may impact communities in quite different ways; certain locales have suffered substantial economic, social, cultural, and environmental losses due to flooding, while other areas have been affected by droughts, wildfires, or hurricanes. By redirecting citizens’ attention to the immediate threat of climate change in their own communities, those learning about climate science are less likely to psychologically distance themselves from it.
Horizontal Communication. Innovative methods of horizontal communication have been demonstrated to promote knowledge transfer to specific demographic communities traditionally distrustful of scientific information. In these exchanges, powerful institutions learn from the expertise provided by particular cultural groups while also sharing their findings. Alda is a proponent of horizontal styles of communication because subversion of traditional vertical structures prevents the targeted audience from feeling talked down to (Thorp, 2022). Two-way dialogue fosters positive relationships between those who produce science and the public that consumes it.
Visual Stimulation. Generally, researchers agree that visuals are particularly effective for communicating scientific information (Hajdu et al., 2019). People engage with visuals more readily than long blocks of text, making illustrations an ideal strategy to quickly communicate complicated, lengthy information. To create effective visual communications, collaboration is essential, which brings us to our last recommendation.
Early and Continuous Collaboration. The literature emphasizes a need for early and continuous collaboration between scientists, graphic designers, communication specialists, and editors to co-create effective products for intended audiences. Often, communications teams operate separately from scientists, even though they may work on the same projects. It is crucial that those tasked with the delicate art of communicating emerging scientific information are involved in the early stages of project planning, and not simply brought in at the very end. This practice will create a deeper understanding among communication staff of the information they are responsible for translating to audiences and enhance the quality of communications.
As COVID-19 has highlighted, effective communication of scientific information to the public is vital for addressing large scale public policy problems. Diverse actors are in a position to influence behaviour that will help solve public problems, but transdisciplinary collaboration, targeting messaging to audiences, and dialogue and feedback can enable information to be communicated accurately and efficiently, and ultimately change behaviour.
Burrows, S., Olive, R., O’Brien, S., & Galloway, T. (2022). Connection is key when there’s no planet B: The need to innovate environmental science communication with transdisciplinary approaches. Science of The Total Environment, 853, 158435. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158435
Connors, S. L., Nicolai, M., Berger, S., Pidcock, R., Walsh, M., & Hawtin, N. (2022). Co-developing the IPCC frequently asked questions as an effective science communication tool. Climatic Change, 171(1-2), 10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03248-0
Farrow, K., Grolleau, F., & Ibanez, L. (2017). Social norms and pro-environmental behavior: A review of the evidence. Ecological Economics, 140, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.04.017
Fielding, K. S., & Louis, W. L. (2020). The role of social norms in communicating about climate change. In D. C. Holmes & L. M. Richardson (Eds.). Research handbook on communicating climate change (pp. 106-115). Elgaronline. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781789900408.00019
Goffman, J. (2020). CleanLaw: Katharine Hayhoe and Joe Goffman talk climate science, communication, and hope [Audio podcast]. Harvard Law School. https://eelp.law.harvard.edu/2020/12/cleanlaw-katharine-hayhoe-and-joe-goffman-talk-climate-science-communication-and-hope
Green, A. & Troup, K. (1999). Oral history. In The houses of history: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory (pp 230-253). New York University Press.
Hajdu, M., & Simoneau, C. (2020). Communicating science in a policy context to a broader audience. In V. Šucha & M. Sienkiewicz (Eds.), Science for policy handbook (Chapter 15, pp. 166-179). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-822596-7.00015-2
Jones, J., Keller, C. P., & van der Flier Keller, E. (2022). Insights into ENGO activities in the Salish Sea: A call for more coordination, communication, and potential for communities of practice. Environmental Science & Policy, 133, 127-136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2022.03.017
Martel-Morin, M., & Lachapelle, E. (2022). The five Canadas of climate change: Using audience segmentation to inform communication on climate policy. PLOS ONE, 17(11), e0273977. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0273977
Thorp, H. H. (2022). Communicating with clarity. Science, 377(6613), 1363. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.ade86
Authors: Ashley MacKinnon, Katie Caravan, and Naomi Vogt
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.