What does effective science communication look like?

Bevan, B., A.C. Barton, C. Garibay. 2020. Broadening perspectives on broadening participation: professional learning tools for more expansive and equitable science communication. Frontiers in Communication 5:52 doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00052

As a result of the pandemic and time spent quarantined over the summer I’ve spent way more time on social media than usual. I feel that most of my down time is spent scrolling through various feeds, reading random posts, and diving into rabbit holes of articles and videos about the most obscure stuff. Anyone feeling this way too? Hopefully, I’m not alone…

Science Communication – how do I engage?

Through this time spent on social media I’ve began to reflect a lot on science communication and how I, as a PhD student at a large university, share my science. Thinking about my outlets for sharing my own research made me take a step back as I began to think about how I access science? How do I access scientific discovery? What are the most common ways I interact with science on a daily basis? Do I interact with science outside of my job? Science communication and improving accessibility to easily-digestible scientific discovery is one of the prominent goals of the EnviroBites community and a large part of our responsibility as scientists, so I thought exploring this idea for my post today would be a good fit.

I challenge you to think about how you engage with science. Where do you turn to get your questions answered? Or better yet, where does science present itself to you in your everyday life? Are there times in when you do not interact with science at all? Have you ever had a difficult time accessing science? Do you think science communication is equitable? Lots of questions, I apologize, but writing this post made me think a lot about the equity of science communication.

Is science communication equitable?

Researchers on the team of Bevan et al. decided to explore the field of science communication and dive into whether or not classic avenues of science communication are equitable and engaging for people outside of STEM. The authors explored the common methodology for science communication and aimed to understand how we can re-conceptualize science communication to be more widely accessible. They reviewed and synthesized extensive work in science communication done through the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

The authors frame their science communication analysis using the Matthew Effect, a “phenomenon whereby systems of reward and recognition lead to the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.” In this framework, science communication makes the “science-engaged become even more science engaged” and others are left behind. By approaching science communication through more traditional routes, like peer-reviewed articles and conference presentations, our science is easily shared with other scientists but people outside of the STEM world are often left without. Scientists commonly share their work in circles and fields that they engage with daily. Special community-based science projects are an exception to this rule, however as the authors remind us, these projects are often short-lived or funded through some grant project that eventually runs dry. So how can we change science communication standards to engage more broadly with the public and reach new and more equitable audiences?

Re-imaging science communication

To tackle these questions, researchers at CAISE created a task force to review current science communication practices and make recommendations for how to move science communication in a more equitable direction. Historically underrepresented groups and communities in STEM have included people of color, people with disabilities, women, and low-income communities, among others. Unfortunately, making channels like conferences and peer-reviewed article entries more accessible to these communities is only part of the solution. When these opportunities are made more available, underrepresented communities still need to opt in to pursue those opportunities and that does not always happen for a wide variety of reasons. Through the research done at CAISE, it has become clear that broadening participation in science communication will be challenging on many levels.

Why is broadening participation in science so challenging?

Through various interviews and Zoom meetings with STEM professionals, the CAISE research team was able to identify four underlying systemic factors that make it challenging to broaden participation in science communication:

  1. STEM and science communication is narrowly defined, meaning that there are constraints put on what people recognize as STEM learning opportunities and atypical experiences for science communication are not frequently utilized.
  2. STEM fields are still predominantly white, western, and male and these norms can reinforce engagement with audiences of the same background, while alienating other audiences.
  3. Science communication programs are usually designed without building on other successful STEM learning experiences or incorporating follow up and ongoing experiences beyond a single science communication event.
  4. Science communication programs are usually based out of big universities or institutions that can have low allocated budgets and staff available focused on equity.

These systemic issues emphasize the importance of deep changes that need to occur in order to create more equitable and accessible science communication. The authors summarize that viewing equitable science communication as an issue of access-alone (an individual’s lack of awareness, availability, funds, or physical barriers) does not encompass the complexity of the problem. We have to dive deeper to address the history of systemic exclusion that makes equitable science communication so challenging.

Concluding thoughts

To successfully begin making science communication more equitable, we need to move beyond concerns solely around access and begin to tackle the complex systemic barriers that exist that perpetuate inequalities in science communication. Revising our view of science communication to one that focuses on re-examining these systemic issues and incorporating the study of cultural boundaries could help us create tools and best practices better aimed at promoting equitable science engagement.

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Jessica Wright

I am a fourth year PhD. student in earth sciences at Boston University in the Department of Earth and Environment. My research focuses on urban infrastructure systems and energy transition policy, specifically focusing on the role of natural gas. I completed my undergraduate studies at Connecticut College in Biology and have worked with a lot of non-profits in and around the Greater Boston area on energy transition policy-making. I love to swim, do yoga, and travel!

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