2F. Trends, challenges and opportunities in research communication
The practice of research communication is exciting and dynamic: full of challenges on the one hand, but also new formats and opportunities on the other. Below are some important emerging trends and challenges.
The media landscape is shifting and changing
Traditional media outlets, especially printed media, are under pressure. Newspapers and magazines are making way for social and interactive online media. The proliferation of new media and the fragmentation of existing media have profound impacts on how and with whom one communicates about science and technology. Specialist science journalists, and science sections in mainstream newspapers, are disappearing. At the same time, universities (and other research organisations) are appointing more communication experts. This means that more communicators are competing for the attention of fewer journalists and a shrinking number of so-called “news holes” for science.
Media outlets are increasingly relying on stories and images provided to them, including science news coming from universities. This adds to the responsibility of communicators to be ethical and responsible in the material they issue to the mass media, and not to oversell or hype up research findings.
“As newsrooms shrink and science journalists are axed, so too is quality science news from traditional media streams. While it is still important to engage with traditional media, it is imperative for institutions to build their own communities and audiences, to use multimedia technologies effectively and to adapt and share content across multiple platforms to ensure that important research news is communicated.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
The internet is changing everything
The internet is changing the way people look for, find and consume information. Today, everything you want to know is just a click away, if you have access to the internet. And, anyone can become a producer of science news or can comment on science information. This has resulted in an avalanche of science information. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to distinguish “real” science from misinformation. On the other hand, alternative publishing platforms such as blogs and social media provide opportunities for scientists to interact with, and include, the public in the discussion. Digital storytelling is evocative and visual and a huge untapped opportunity for the effective sharing of research.
People process information differently online
The internet is also changing the way people process information. Behavioural researchers tell us that our brains are mostly lazy and looking for shortcuts, meaning that most people are “cognitive misers”. We look for easy answers. We don’t want to engage with complexity. On top of that we look for information that confirms what we already believe – a phenomenon known as “cognitive bias”. To make things worse, the algorithms behind search engines send us more of the information we consumed before – so that we end up in so-called “filter bubbles” where we are only exposed to what we like to read.
Information is not enough
When people doubt science, we often assume that they are simply misinformed. If we could just provide them with enough information and explain the facts clearly, then they would ‘get it’ and agree with the science. Unfortunately, that’s not how the understanding of science works. Research shows that giving people more information does not persuade them – it rather polarises them, depending on whether that information threatens or affirms their existing values and group identity. We are slowly beginning to realise that to know science does not necessarily equate to supporting science. Instead, the more people know about science, the more questions and reservations they may have. That is why simply bombarding people with facts may not result in desirable changes in behaviour, and may actually backfire, and so achieve the opposite of what you set out to do.
“Politically sensitive research findings may be difficult to communicate, and may pose a risk to the scientist and the collaborating communicator.” Heather Ndlovu, lecturer and research uptake manager at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
Citizens are becoming more critical of science
In the past, many people trusted science (and scientists) implicitly, and believed (or at least hoped) that science would – or could – solve all our problems. As people have more access to a wide range of science information sources, they become more able to question and voice their concerns about science. In a knowledge society the public scrutinises new scientific development more intensely and wants to participate more fully in its governance than before.
Credibility is becoming a key issue
People are bombarded by seemingly conflicting messages, especially when it comes to advice about a healthy diet and lifestyle. For example, for many years we heard that butter is bad for you, but lately high-fat diets are praised by some scientists. People don’t always understand why scientists seem to disagree, and why disagreement between experts is integral to the nature of science. A key challenge facing communicators involves helping people to understand the process of science and how knowledge advances as a result of scientists challenging existing knowledge and each other’s’ findings.
Science (or research) communication is moving closer to politics
The implications and applications of modern science have become so close to people’s lives that it is no longer possible to separate science and politics. Many of the most polarising controversies in society are based on issues in science, for example biotechnology, nanotechnology and climate science. The political debate is not necessarily about the science itself, but about how and why it is used and how it influences policies.
“A key trend for me is how science communication ‘sneaks’ in where we least expect it – especially in movies and television. David Salzberg is the science consultant for the popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory”. In the series, Sheldon’s white boards are full of equations and theories as a shout out to the science community on what various researchers are working on. Salzberg kept a blog to explain the science used in BBT ” René van der Berg, science communicator at Stellenbosch University
Research communication carries risk
When researchers present their findings to the world, they have to anticipate that some people will not like it and that there may be a backlash against the findings. Some announcements may be celebrated by some, but criticised by others. When this happens, scientists have to be ready and willing to engage with critics in constructive debate.
Research communication is becoming increasingly visual
Data visualisation is a powerful trend in research communication. High-quality photos are no longer enough to illustrate a science story. Nowadays you need interactive data visualisations to spice up science presentations, and excellent infographics to bring science articles to life.
Creative collaborations are adding value to research communication
Research communication is thriving as a result of creative collaborations between scientists, communicators, designers and artists who jointly “think out of the box” to create ways to engage people. Science can be woven into stories, theatre, music, drama and photography. Online, science can be shared via infographics, animations, video clips, apps and games, potentially reaching and engaging vast audiences. These new ways of sharing science often use elements of humour and fun, thereby helping to make science less intimidating for non-scientists than it was before. The growing popularity of creative science-art collaborations creates special opportunities for breaking down barriers between science and ordinary people, and helps people to connect with science on an emotional level.
“As traditional media outlets cut back on their science coverage, public information officers are becoming a vital source for science news.” Matt Shipman, science writer and public information officer at North Carolina State University, USA and author of “Handbook for Science Public Information Officers”
“Live” research communication is very popular
Formats where young researchers are challenged to present their work in a fast-paced, compelling and exciting format have become very popular in recent years. Examples are FameLab, Three-minute Thesis and Science Slams. Other formats – such as “Science Cafés”; “Science and Cocktails”, and “Pint of Science” – create opportunities for conversations between scientists and the public in coffee shops, clubs and bars.
Open access science opens up new opportunities
Changes in the way researchers communicate with each other also has profound implications for the way science is shared with public and policy audiences. The open access movement in science now means that vast amounts of scientific data, including huge databases that were previously locked behind institutional barriers or journal paywalls, are now accessible to anyone. This opens up new platforms for sharing science, and for ordinary people to engage with cutting-edge science.
Pseudoscience is everywhere
Pseudoscience typically deals with information and claims that are presented as (or appear to be) scientific, but in reality have no scientific basis (or evidence) to support them. This could vary from unsubstantiated claims made in advertising about “miracle” skin products to psychics claiming to be able to bring back a lost lover or see into the future. Pseudoscience misleads people, and convinces them to pay for bogus services by playing on their fears and superstitions. Most African cultures value the knowledge of traditional healers and herbalists, since they have valid knowledge of medicinal plants. However, is important to distinguish between valid indigenous knowledge and pseudoscience posing as traditional knowledge.
Anti-science seems to be rising
Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, more and more people don’t accept what scientists tell them about climate change, the safety of genetically modified crops or the need to vaccinate their children. Public trust in science seems to be at an all-time low, with science denialism, conspiracy theories and fake experts gaining public attention.
Citizen science campaigns are a good way to promote engagement, trust and efficacy, and impart information. When citizens actively contribute to science they acquire new learning and skills, and deeper understanding of the scientific work in an appealing way. Citizen science may be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers. Citizen scientists often partner with professional scientists to achieve common goals. Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means. However, some scientists criticise the validity of data contributed by non-scientists.
The science of science (or research) communication
The “science of science communication” challenges researchers to take a more scientific (and evidence-based) approach to the way they communicate. It emphasises the importance of a deeper understanding of how people learn about and respond to science, as well as how contextual factors and new media environments influence public science engagement. The science of science communication has four tasks: (1) to identify the science most relevant to the decisions that people face; (2) to determine what people already know; (3) to design communications to fill the critical gaps between what people know and need to know; and (4) to evaluate the adequacy of those communications.
Find out more about the science of science communication (including links to online videos of experts speaking about this topic) here: www.nasonline.org
There is no “one size fits all” solution to dealing with these emerging trends and challenges in research communication. However, communicators should be aware of these trends and consider how these trends may influence their science communication approaches and strategies.
Which of these trends are particularly relevant in your context? For example, how is the media landscape changing in your region? Are you adapting your research communication strategy accordingly?
“Public information officers will not, and should not, ever replace reporters. But it is increasingly important for PIOs to be responsible, effective science communicators who can explain complex science to non-expert audiences.” Matt Shipman, public information officer at North Carolina State University, USA and author of “Handbook for Science Public Information Officers”