What’s the future for science communication?

In the space of just a few months, the global coronavirus pandemic thrust science to the forefront of public consciousness. The public can no longer escape it, and science communicators now have to compete with armchair experts on an enormous scale. Digital innovations and the way society engages with information and ideas have rapidly changed and, if we want to be effective, science communicators also need to evolve in how they operate.

Scientists are expected, more than ever before, to communicate in some way to public audiences but to do this effectively requires skill and practice. Just throwing lots of facts and figures at people to showcase your work doesn’t cut it any more, which has been made strikingly obvious by the extensive discussions around the coronavirus pandemic. Science communication as a field is changing all the time and, if we want our voices to be heard and our work to receive the right attention, we need to try and keep up.

We’ve travelled a long way since renowned scientists set up royal institutions and science societies to facilitate the sharing of science and provide consistency of approach, and even further since early populations around the world used storytelling to share their scientific knowledge. Scientific literacy amongst the public, and access to information, is now far greater than in the past (albeit with significant challenges in teasing out fact from fiction) and science communicators have a wide range of creative methodologies at their disposal to inform, engage and motivate their audiences. And these audiences now expect more. They won’t necessarily take information at face value and can find alternative sources at the push of a button on the internet, and they want to feel heard and involved. So where do we go from here?

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has forced billions of us to significantly adapt our lives. This has led to an upsurge in people working, and being entertained, at home or, at least, locally. In turn, this has meant that most of us are spending huge amounts of time looking at screens and very little time seeing people in person. Consequently, the content and delivery of science communication has also had to adapt. Public lectures, shows and exhibitions, for instance, have either been cancelled or redesigned to be shared online. Interactive workshops and public involvement activities have been curtailed and some topics postponed in light of more pressing priorities. While this has led to imaginative approaches to communication and a move to increasing digital activities, there are now greater challenges in reaching people and screen fatigue will become a greater hurdle the longer the coronavirus restrictions go on.

Not only may the public tire of online information and events, but the sheer volume of scientific information (or ‘infodemic’) about coronavirus has been found to have led to confusion and mistrust. Providing data is no longer enough; communicators need to build trust and understand, and tap into, their audiences’ values and fears if their messages are to penetrate. (Why don’t some trust vaccines? Why are some upset about wearing a mask or not being able to socialise?) As science communicators, we need science to have exposure to generate public understanding, engagement and support, and the pandemic has certainly thrust it into the limelight. But this huge visibility hasn’t always been a good thing. The quality of the information and its delivery has been variable, to say the least; from contradictory intelligence, guidance regularly revised, and findings overturned and challenged, to new technologies promising hope then being shown to be flawed, and conflict amongst the experts themselves. While we may appreciate that some of this is just the way science works, part of the issue is that the public may not know that uncertainty is a natural feature of scientific method. Arguably, a larger problem has also been the poor and misleading communications, research findings rushed out too soon, political interference, and commentators with no relevant expertise manipulating the discourse.

So, it is no wonder that the public no longer knows what to think, what or who to trust, and where to turn to for reliable information. Could the information overload and constant arguments have turned them off forever? Research, from the London School of Economics and Political Science Systemic Risk Centre, suggests that while the public still view science as important, trust in scientists may diminish as a result of the pandemic. In future, the public may demand greater accountability and transparency from scientists, placing more pressure on them to up their communication and engagement skills.

Not only has there been an upsurge in science conversation, we’ve also seen a tidal wave of armchair experts, science commentators and challengers come to the fore (no matter their level of expertise). And this isn’t just about the coronavirus; people (such as influencers) feel more emboldened to disseminate their own interpretation of scientific information, regardless of whether they have any real skills or experience in the area. This saturation of the science communication space has made it harder to get across accurate facts and empower people to make informed decisions. The interference of politics in science has also led to the promotion of information that supports policy directions, rather than using the best science to inform policies. Where does this leave practicing science communicators? From countering misinformation, to trying to amplify the best evidence, genuine, skilled science communicators face an uphill battle to be heard amid the noise. And, while many will be talking on topics totally unrelated to coronavirus, they will still feel the impact of disinterested, unengaged audiences who would rather see, hear, read or experience anything other than more science.

It’s not all bad news, however. The crowded science communications arena has driven innovation in an attempt to capture attention — just look at the virtual science festivals. It has also inspired more young people to get involved in science, stemming from increased understanding about its role in the wider world and the desire to take action to make things better. In addition, much wider conversations have opened up about the representation and inclusion of different groups in society, who have traditionally been less visible in science and science communication. By taking thoughtful and strategic actions to address this, we should see changes in how we view and practice science and science communication, as well as increased engagement with science as a result. These changes alone could transform the future of science communication.

A number of EU initiatives have also been established to help identify where we’re headed. In January 2019, a three-year project, involving ten European countries and experts in science, science communication and public engagement, was established to consider just what the future of science communication might look like. The RETHINK project aims to rethink science communication, both theory and practice, taking into account contextual challenges and scientific and technological developments. It hopes to foster a more open, inclusive, reflexive and adaptive science communications environment. RETHINK, along with two other EU-funded science communication projects CONCISE and QUEST, recently called for papers on ‘re-examining science communication’ for a special issue of the Journal of Science Communication, to widen its perspective and consider how to improve the quality of science communication.

2020 has been an awful year in so many ways, but it will drive big changes and science communication will unquestionably evolve. One thing is for certain, high quality science communication will be increasingly needed as the world faces ever more complex challenges and people require individualised information and support. Advances in technology will progressively underpin the way in which science communication may be designed and delivered, inevitably facilitating greater creativity and reach in our communications. But communicators will also need to spend more time trying to understand, building trust with, and meeting the needs of their audiences. How can we address any barriers that may be limiting their access to quality information? How can we enhance their opportunities, and better enable them to get involved? How can we encourage them to listen to us instead of those who are promoting poor science information?

Science communicators will need to adapt to this changing world and keep apace of innovations that enable wider engagement with science. The special issue of JCOM will provide a useful collection of ideas for the development of science communication, and more diverse communicators will enrich the field with new ideas to inspire, engage and empower, but involving the end users, our ‘target audiences’, to help us to evolve will also be critical.

If you’re new to science communication and wondering what you can do to improve your impact, here are a few starting points:

· Take a look around for public science communication examples, outside your field, that inspire and engage you. Consider why they are successful — explore aspects such as their main messages, tone of voice, length and style, presentation format, balance of facts and narrative. Find out more about the breadth of ways people can now communicate their science.

· Think about who you want to reach with your science communications and what they might want to know or find useful about what you have to say. (Do people really want to read a blog all about you?! How can you make that blog interesting or relevant to others?) What might be stopping from them engaging and what can you do to remove any barriers?

· Get creative (you want to find a way to stand out) but base it on the preferences of your audience — you might want to produce an interactive online poetry workshop on genetics but they might prefer to read a short explainer article on what DNA is. Do some research to identify the best approach.

Science communicator, engagement & health policy professional. I write, consult & train. dralexiswillett.com punchconsulting.co.uk tangelohouse.thinkific.com