Social science researchers have developed a range of ‘models’ to describe different approaches towards communicating research to public audiences. It is useful to understand these models when designing your own communication interventions.
In the deficit model information is transmitted in a one-way, top-down fashion from experts to the public. Researchers may regard people as being ignorant of an issue and expect them to support and appreciate the science related to that issue once they have been given the information. This model is criticised mainly because it does not take into account that people have diverse views, concerns and beliefs that will influence how they respond to scientific information. It is not necessarily true that people will appreciate and support science when given more information. On the contrary, more information may often lead to more questions and concerns, and a polarisation of views.
The contextual model acknowledges that individuals do not simply respond to information as if they were empty containers – which individuals are not. In fact, people process information differently depending on their previous experiences, as well as their circumstances and the context. Therefore, the context shapes the scientific information and indeed “makes meaning”. In this model, communicators value the audience’s prior knowledge, world views and value systems.
The lay-expertise model cherishes the value of local/historical wisdom and indigenous knowledge systems. It argues that scientists are often unreasonably certain about their own level of expertise and often fail to recognise the value of local/historical wisdom. This is a particularly important model for developing-world contexts where indigenous knowledge and other forms of knowledge co-exist.
The engagement (or participation) model emphasises dialogue, debate and interaction between science and the public. In this model, scientists need to find ways to listen to the concerns, expectations and views of the public, so that they can learn from what ordinary people have to say. Here, it is not only about public understanding of science, but also about the scientists’ understanding of the public.
Most communication scholars agree that these models overlap and that they often may and should co-exist. Depending on the context and objectives, each model can be useful and relevant in the practice of research communication.
“Our research communication efforts focus on open dialogue with our surrounding communities. It is totally integrated with our research and starts where we ask community members what new research they need.” Cuzette du Plessis, community engagement manager at University of Fort Hare, South Africa
Australian science communication expert Jenni Metcalfe presented a paper on her research on how science communication models can be applied in practice at the PCST (public communication of science and technology) conference that was held during April 2014 in Salvador. Read the paper and presentation.
Points to think about
How do these communication models manifest in your university? For example, is the focus largely on one-way dissemination from researchers (experts) to lay audiences? If yes, are there ways you could add more opportunities for scientists to engage the public, including listening to their views and concerns.
What is the value of dialogue between researchers and public audiences?
Would it be a good idea to create ways for communities in your region to have say about the research done at your university? Would it be a good idea for scientists to listen to their views and concerns? Why, or why not?
Should the public have a say about research priorities (help choose the most important project to fund) and research ethics (have a say about whether a specific project may be funded or not based on ethical/moral concerns)? Why, or why not?