Mika Launikari


Science communication for increasing public outreach and engagement

Published on Permalink

The word science makes people often feel a certain unease as they find scientific ideas and research-based evidence difficult to understand. For this reason, there is a great demand for well-targeted science communication that addresses the general audience in a language and style they are well familiar with and through channels they are convenient at using. The more research findings are shared with people, the better informed they are for taking well-argued decisions on important policy questions that may affect their lives directly or indirectly in the future.

These days the science community is frequently bombarded with challenges to increase public outreach and engagement with research as well as to make science better accessible to the large audience. Communicating science is not only about popularization, but ensuring that knowledge from the academic research community is timely brought to those, such as policy and decision makers, who need that information. Science communication can be regarded as a principal instrument for passing on the accumulated knowhow, experience and expertise gained through science and research to the entire society.

These days academics need to strengthen their professional ability to communicate about their ideas and discoveries as to secure their research funding and to justify the societal relevance and economic impact of their scientific findings. Moreover, effective science communication fosters collaboration and innovation across disciplines and allows applying cross-fertilization of research-based ideas to real-life challenges to a larger degree. Indeed from earlier one-way information provision, science communication is now evolving to a multi-professional, cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary dialogue between the research community, society, economy, state and third sector.

Science does not exist in a vacuum

Science and its results do not exist in a vacuum or in siloes, but they always need to be well contextualized and put into a perspective when communicated in the media. The benefits and exploits of science are to be explained and the scientific conclusions and/or recommendations explicitly justified to the public. Further, when presenting any research results and having a related debate, it is crucial to avoid creating a false balance where one party’s view weighs too heavily over the other party’s (Murcott and Willimas, 2013). 

As Murcott and Williams (2013) point out, scientific results are often presented as univocal truths, which may give an exaggeratingly one-sided view on them. The authors also argue that science journalists, who create visibility for research, should not only know about the final results, but as intellectual critics also understand the process that generated them. Further, as the use of online media grows, the working practices of journalists are changing and they are expected to produce an increased level of output for a fixed level of input. Working on squeezed resources does not necessarily allow a scientific journalist to become well enough acquainted with the research process itself these days anymore. 

Dialogue between journalists and scientists

These days science journalists are increasingly becoming public relations experts working at a fast speed instead of having sufficiently time for properly investigating any given scientific phenomenon they are supposed to be reporting about. Murcott (2009) describes this as “reproducing press releases”. He suggests that high-quality professional scientific journalism cannot only be based on such pre-selected information provided by the scientific community, but that science reporters should have good conditions for thorough analysis of any given research and its background before anything gets published in the media.

The journalists are assisting scientists to be better and more widely heard in the society. While reporting on any research, the scientific journalists aim at translating scientific and field-specific academic jargon into written stories that non-specialists can easily engage with (Rensberger, 2009). However, scientists may sometimes be objecting to the way journalists simplify and popularize their highly complex scientific evidence, although this normally only creates good visibility for their professional achievements.

Further, scientists may overestimate their own ability to communicate well with the general audience. This may, occasionally, be even more detrimental to their reputation and their chances of getting their message across than would be to allow the slightly streamlined and mainstreamed presentation of their academic work by a professional science journalist. In an ideal case, there is a respectful two-way dialogue on an equal ground between the journalist and the scientist. This is beneficial for both parties involved in promoting science and communicating its value to the general public.       

Bibliographic sources

Murcott, T. & Williams, A. (2013). The challenges for science journalism in the UK. Progress in Physical Geography

Murcott, T. (2009). Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood. Nature 459.

Rensberger, B. Science journalism: Too close for comfort. Nature 459.

Photo: theweek.com