Effective communication:
dream or reality?

Published March 01 2017

“Science communication.” It is a phrase that is both celebrated for its importance and reviled for its ambiguity. Scientists are encouraged to communicate often and effectively to help gain support for their research. At the same time, there is extensive debate among science-communication researchers and professionals about what communication is, what the goals are for different communication efforts and what approaches are most effective.

So it was with great fanfare and anticipation that the National Academy of Sciences released a report in December titled “Communicating Science Effectively.” Stakeholders hoped the report would provide clarity on best practices in science communication and illustrate a path forward for the field.

Unfortunately, little within the report points toward immediately actionable suggestions. Instead, the main takeaway is that more research is needed into several questions related to science communication: How do social factors influence trust in science? How can (and should) science affect policy debates? What is the best way to communicate scientific controversies?

Looking to obtain more information about the report’s intention and expected outcomes, several leaders within the science-communication field gathered in January for a public hearing with the report authors in Washington, D.C. The CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan Leshner, chaired the committee that wrote the report. At the hearing, Leshner stressed the timeliness of the report, emphasizing how effective communication is necessary to ensure that science continues to play a vital role in current events. Committee vice chairman Dietram Scheufele, professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, pointed out that the report was particularly relevant for the new generation of scientists who are more comfortable with communicating to broad audiences than previous generations but who still need direction on how to do so effectively.

Despite the optimism exuded by the authors, several within the community remain unconvinced. Rick Borchelt from the Department of Energy Office of Science asked during the hearing what the report added to the field of science communication, citing publications going back at least 15 years that made similar recommendations about doing more research into effective communication approaches. Other commentators also wondered aloud what agency or institution would fund the ambitious research agenda. To generate momentum from the report, the NAS announced that it will host the “Science of Science Communication” colloquium in November to explore these issues further.

But what can organizations and individuals do to help advance the cause of science communication? While nowhere near as ambitious as the research agenda laid about in the NAS report, one small step that we hope members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will take is to start publishing the broader impacts of their work. Any researcher applying for funding from the National Science Foundation has to include a description of how he or she will demonstrate the broader impacts of the proposed research on society at large. Unfortunately, researchers rarely publish these types of results. When they do, the publications usually are confined to education-focused journals, thereby bifurcating the scientific research and science-education communities.

The ASBMB Public Outreach Committee wants to bridge this bifurcation to help connect scientists and science communicators. We are looking to collect and disseminate descriptions of broader impact activities that stem from research publications. Our motivation for this effort is straightforward: to provide ASBMB members with outlets that will help them communicate their science. If you have published an NSF-funded research paper within the past 12 months and want to share your broader impacts story, send us a message at outreach@asbmb.org.

The more we can generate buy-in and support within the research community for science communication, the stronger the argument becomes that communicating science effectively needs to be a standard part of the scientific process.

Geoff Hunt Geoff Hunt is ASBMB’s outreach manager. Follow him on Twitter.