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Communicating basic science — is it unique?

Posted by , on 15 August 2023

Five takeaways from #SciPEP2023

Do you think it is important to distinguish basic from applied science in science communication? How necessary is it to develop communications training approaches that are unique for basic scientists?

These were the questions the participants were asked in the poll at the beginning of an online conference I attended back in July. The conference, ‘SciPEP 2023: New Insights for Communicating Basic Science’, brought together science communication practitioners, researchers and scientists to discuss insights and generate ideas to advance communication of basic scientific research.

Thinking about science communication with my developmental biologist hat on, here are five things I learned from this conference.

(1) Process-minded vs payoff-minded approaches to science

Many of us know that science communication works best when the message reflects the interests of the audience. That’s why it’s important to understand what the different ‘publics’ think and feel about science; equally relevant are the needs and motivations of the scientists who are doing the communication.

On the first day of the conference, we heard about a series of studies conducted to look into the perception of science, motivations for people to engage with science, and how the public’s interest might vary among cultural, political, economic, and other demographics.

Chris Volpe from Science Counts presented data from surveys conducted in 2018: in America, the public doesn’t care about the difference between basic and applied science, and they mostly associate science with hope. As for scientists, their attitudes towards science seems to be more divided — basic scientists associate science with joy and excitement; applied scientists associate science with hope [report]. The report termed the people associating science with joy and excitement as process-minded, and those associating science with hope as payoff-minded. While process-minded people focus on the ‘how’, pay-off minded people focus on the ‘what’ and often the ‘why’.

According to this report, applied scientists’ attitudes towards science are more in line with the majority of the public, i.e. payoff-minded, whereas basic scientists are more process-minded and have to overcome an extra hurdle to connect with the public. These findings suggest that perhaps when we talk about basic science topics, we should move towards a more pay-off minded approach. But different ‘publics’ might have different feelings towards science — that’s why it’s important to always understand our specific audiences when engaging with them about our research.

(2) Relevance of science should go beyond utility

Many of us are trained to, and easily default to, talking about the utility of our research. In moving towards a more pay-off minded approach and making our communications relevant to non-scientific audiences, does that mean we have to always talk about our research with some eventual utility?    

To open the session ‘Relevance or Connection?’, we listened to a thought-provoking talk from Mónica Feliú Mójer on ‘What does relevance mean for basic science?’. Monica posed the following questions, “What makes you feel connected to science? What makes science relevant to you?”

Monica argued that the ‘relevance equals utility’ framework is limiting and can be counter-productive — making basic science relevant has to go beyond talking about its utility. Instead, Monica suggested that we should center on connection, find common ground with our audiences, and communicate with them in their own language. We have to connect our research to people’s everyday lives, who they are, and what they care about. Relevance is about connecting with audiences in ways that are meaningful and pertinent to their culture. Thinking about relevance in terms of connection can help us engage a more diverse audiences across differences and be more effective in our communications.

Thinking back to communicating about developmental biology, how do we connect with our audiences beyond talking about the utility of our research? Is curiosity and awe enough to make development biology relevant to people?

(3) Is it helpful to distinguish between basic and applied science?

What do the public think about the term ‘basic science’? What do scientists themselves think about the term? Is it counter-productive to distinguish between basic and applied science communications? In a recent report on why and how to engage in effective and meaningful science communication on basic science topics, many interviewees (consisting of basic scientists, scicomm practitioners and researchers) were unsure about whether and when ‘basic science’ is a helpful focal point. There are many factors that motivate scientists to communicate, not just the nature of their research. The discussions throughout the conference kept circling back to the process versus payoff-minded approaches. Perhaps the distinction between pay-off/ process-mindedness can be more useful that basic/ applied when it comes to science communication? Are ‘discovery’ or ‘fundamental’ science better terms than basic science?

(4) It’s not easy to articulate goals and set concrete actions

In the final session of the conference, the organizers created a collaborative Miro board for conference participants to get together and discuss opportunities and priorities for basic scicomm training, research, and practice. The board was very lively with all the ‘Visiting inventors’ ‘Visiting builders’ and ‘Visiting pioneers’ (you’ll understand if you’ve ever used a Miro board!).

Many ideas put down on the Miro board were more conceptual ideas than concrete actions. The few concrete ideas on the Miro board were actual examples that people have tried to do. Instead of starting from scratch, we should probably do a better job at sharing and showcasing brilliant scicomm examples, so that others can learn from and build on them. Check out the existing long-term science communication and public engagement initiatives in fundamental biomedical research in this special issue.

(5) Listening is the first step to effective communication

Communication works best when we listen. Listening is a skill that can be developed, and it’s vital that as scientists, we bring humility and empathy when trying to connect with people about our research. It is also important that scientists, scicomm researchers and practitioners listen and talk to each other to come up with creative ideas and approaches to science communication.

So now, let’s listen to your views and experiences — what are your motivations for talking about your research to non-scientists? Do you have any examples of effective communications about developmental and stem cell biology?

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Categories: Meeting Reports, Outreach

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