We often talk about the potential of research to change the world for the better, but how do we make sure that research actually creates change?
At its center, research impact relies on successful communication. This communication can happen between a scientist and a journalist, within the scientific community, to relevant policy-makers or practitioners, or even between two neighbors, one of whom happens to be a researcher at the local university.
We spoke to several experts in science communication on the challenges and opportunities for research impact.
“I think a lot of good investigative journalism is basically public accountability. And so we view journalists as a megaphone. There have been quite a lot of efforts to teach scientists to talk to reporters. And that’s a good thing, but you still hear routinely that scientists can’t present their findings to non-technical audiences. Those communication efforts are great things, but they weren’t coupled with practical advice. How do you get a reporter to call you? What works and what doesn’t work? Where do you get the resources to help you to do this? We need long-term engagement tools.
You really have to feel for journalists. They’re responsible for knowing everything! Back when I worked at NOAA Fisheries we reversed the view that talking to journalists would hurt you. We spoke to journalists. Whether you’re quoted is immaterial. You’re impacting the scope of their understanding.”
“The big irony of scientific communication is that it’s one area where we don’t rely on data much. I think there’s a level of urgency here for the scientific community, but there are a couple of things that are complicated. First, fake news isn’t new. People have always held onto beliefs that aren’t true. We’ve seen it for a long time with cable and social media going from “broadcasting” to “narrow casting.” One can always find information that fits one’s beliefs. Second, what the scientific community very often doesn’t understand is that a lot of questions don’t have scientific answers. Is it morally right? That isn’t a scientific question.
So we’re in a highly competitive message environment. The press release on my latest study competes with Beyonce being upset about Jay-Z’s infidelity. Science communication is fighting for mindshare and aligning with readers’ needs and values. Science communication has traditionally stayed away from the marketing literature, but I think we have a lot to learn there.”
Rachel Nowak, Director, The Brain Dialogue, ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, reflected on the limitations of general media and how to improve direct science to public accessibility
“There’s been a massive movement around Open Access and a positive feeling about making research more accessible, but we haven’t considered the readability of the papers themselves. If you move things towards plain language (don’t totally eliminate jargon, because it does have uses), the research becomes much more useful to everyone -- the lay public, but also, and this is important, researchers working in other disciplines. In fact there needs to be a package of tools to make papers more accessible – we need to test things like listing the paper’s key points up front, plain language summaries that put the finding into context, or an icon on the paper that shows where it sits on the pyramid of levels of evidence. Some journals are doing some of these things -- but we need to find out what works, and what doesn't.
It’s interesting that no one is really questioning why the scientific communication ecosystem has become so dependent on the general media for disseminating findings. It's an extraordinarily narrow funnel relative to the volume of research being produced. What's more, the serious media's core job has do with the democratic process, not the dissemination of research findings. The values of the popular media are different, and there science is often selected and covered for its entertainment value. It causes problems and researchers get frustrated, but journalists aren’t there to disseminate scientific knowledge. That’s the job of the researcher and the research enterprise.”
“I used to think the hardest part was translating the technical terminologies so people would understand. But now, I think the biggest challenge is helping people understand where something fits in—there’s a lot of over-emphasis on single studies. There’s a push-pull between what you need to do to make a living as a journalist and what your readers would benefit from.
There’s also a concern about research being adopted too quickly. It’s much more valuable to help people understand scientific uncertainty, probability. Does this single study actually mean you should change your behavior? Context and an understanding of the scientific process matter. There’s a lot of importance in training the public about knowing what to ask and thinking skeptically about a study. How can we translate research to help readers understand how the whole enterprise works? Belief in conspiracy theories, confirmation bias, etc. won’t be solved by communicating science. Turning your research into a TED talk isn’t an answer. People need to understand the process of science.”
All our experts acknowledged the challenges of public engagement around research, but there are certainly opportunities to collaborate and learn more. Improving research impact begins with understanding that our personal beliefs and experiences around science differ, but our desire to improve our communities is shared.
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