Hello fellow science communicators,

Participatory science communication is getting more attention by practitioners as a method for more deliberative engagement of publics. It is also considered to be useful in creating attitudinal and behavioural change than one-way dissemination of facts.

Econnect is proud of the Climate Champion Program we co-created with farmers, scientists and representatives from rural research and development corporations, and then facilitated from 2010­–16. Jenni researched the Program as a case study for her PhD, and has recently published a paper in the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM): Comparing Science Communication Theory with Practice: Case study of the Australian Climate Champion Program.

This paper was part of a special edition of JCOM on Participatory Science Communication for Transformation that Jenni coedited with colleagues Toss Gascoigne, Fabien Medvecky and Ana Claudia Nepote.

In this newsletter, we provide further perspectives on participatory science communication:

Regards from the @EconnectTeamJenni MetcalfeToss GascoigneMichelle RiedlingerSarah Cole & Madeleine Stirrat.

Does citizen science equal participatory communication?

by Toss Gascoigne

So, what’s the difference between participatory science communication and citizen science?

The first citizen science project I knew was a CSIRO project on worms. Kids were invited to dig up a square of land—one spade deep, one wide—and search it for worms. Any worms were euthanised, put in test tubes and sent off to the division of entomology.

The kids had no hand in designing the project or analysing the research or disseminating the results. And that underlines one crucial difference between citizen science and participatory science.

Participatory science is more than collecting worms. In its ideal state it allows citizens to shape the research and add in their own (often) quite considerable expertise.

An example: scientists aiming to map animal populations in central Australia spent three weeks setting elaborate traps and running nightly patrols. Their returns were meagre: the traps were empty, and they found few examples. Then they sought the assistance of the local indigenous community with a very different result.

Citizen science can be categorized into three practices: contributory, collaborative or co-created. Co-created citizen science initiatives—in which citizens not only collect data, but also help refine the research design, analyse data or disseminate findings—are the most participatory.

The key difference boils down to a question of power. Who designs the experiments? Who conducts the analysis, and determines the way the results will be disseminated? Proper participatory science involves publics in all phases.

As a contributor to the special edition of the JCOM, Anne Leitch remarked: “Power includes who decides who is invited (or not invited or actively excluded) to participate and how that process unfolds. It also includes notions of what is counted as expertise, and thus included or omitted in the process.”

Collecting worms and mailing them off to Canberra may be a useful activity. But participatory science? Hardly.

Participatory science communication and social networking

by Michelle Riedlinger

In a recent commentary in Science, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele pointed out that much participatory science communication has shifted online, and that most scientists have been slow to respond.

Science communicators are also playing catch-up.

Research into online participatory science communication is patchy, but there is growing interest in TikTok.

And online participatory misinformation campaigns also hold important lessons for science communicators.

Joan Donovan and her team at the Harvard Kennedy School have created a useful Media Manipulation Casebook to help communicators better understand how others foster online community participation to spread misinformation.

Social networking manipulation tactics of note include:

  1. Astroturfing: making a story appear to come from grassroots community sources or to have emerged organically by hiding the origins of a communication campaign or the original communicators of information.
  2. Cloaked science: hiding a political, financial or ideological agenda by using scientific terms or referring to scientific community practices (e.g. controlled trials, repeated studies, claims of independence).
  3. Trading up the chain: encouraging national and international media outlets to cover a story posted to a small or niche media outlet by manipulating the story’s social media amplification and engagement on a number of platforms.
  4. Distributed amplification: making a story appear more widespread than it is by encouraging devoted community participants to distribute the story widely through their own personal community networks.
  5. Butterfly attack: participating in an existing community through hashtags or groups and mimicking the characteristics of users in order to post confusing or disruptive information.

Joan and her group are calling for a ‘Public Interest Internet’, or an Internet devoted to public good, as a foundation for online participatory science communication efforts. It might be time for science communicators to engage in platform governance and advocacy.

Image used with permission from Alexander Suhorucov.

Participatory science communication leads to better linear communication

by Jenni Metcalfe

Science communication scholars often talk about participatory science communication as a ‘holy grail’ practitioners should be striving towards.

Much has been said over the past three decades about one-way science communication, and the need for science communication to move towards more dialogical and then participatory approaches.

However, my research surprised me by indicating that participatory science communication might actually be the starting point for more effective linear communication. I found that participatory science communication actually improves the likely effectiveness of both one-way communication and two-way dialogue.

This is particularly true when science communication is seeking to help communicate controversial issues or solve seemingly intractable issues.

The Climate Champion Program sought to bring farmers and scientists together to address climate risk. The desired outcome was a group of 40+ farmers from around Australia representing different enterprises—from beekeeping to beef production—communicating with their peers about how best to manage climate risk.

Over the six years of the Program, strong and often personal relationships of trust developed between scientists and farmers.

Farmers listened to (one-way communication) and discussed the science (two-way communication) and then made decisions based on what scientists recommended. Farmers regularly asked the scientists for more information.

But it also worked in reverse. Scientists listened to farmers, asked them questions and changed the research they did, their approach to that research, and the way they communicated their research.

Such long-term participatory programs are expensive, but they can create transformational change when relationships of trust make linear communication more effective. Some tips for making them work:

  • Seek and secure long-term realistic funding, which covers regular face-to-face meetings and social interactions.
  • Co-design program objectives and activities with participants.
  • Provide ongoing support for all involved to build their capacity and ability to interact with each other (Sarah in our team provided almost daily support to farmers and scientists).
  • Ensure meetings/workshops have a strong focus on both structured and informal discussions.
  • Facilitate (and if necessary, train) participants to actively listen to each other.

Trust-building communication styles for participatory science communication

by Sarah Cole

Participatory science relies nearly exclusively on people volunteering to take part (whether volunteer or paid). When non-science experts communicate with other people about science activities that they are a part of, their communication style can strongly influence the effectiveness of the dialogue or dissemination.

If scientists or science communicators need to select participants for communication, how can they decide who might be a great communicator (or trained to be one)?

The seven-year Climate Champion program supported 45 producers around Australia to talk to their farming peers about how to manage and adapt to the risks presented by climate variability and change.

I studied how these Climate Champion program farmers (CCs) interacted with other farmers outside of the program to find factors contributing to how they create and use trust in such interactions. I wanted to find out how this trust contributes to successful (or unsuccessful) communication.

I found that trust between CCs and other farming peers was created and maintained because the CCs accepted that other farmers knew what was best for themselves/their farms. They trusted those farmers’ opinions. This created space for the farmers to trust the CCs in return.

Many of the CCs showed communication styles that included:

  • working from a background of their own strong, robust identity
  • understanding the basis for their own opinions
  • appreciating informal learning exchanges
  • valuing traditional, non-expert knowledge
  • using informal, ‘mild’ (non-hostile) language about potentially controversial topics
  • taking part in many local community groups
  • avoiding perceptions of teaching others or calling themselves experts
  • acknowledging the difficulty and uncertainty of adapting to climate risk by speaking about realistic and relevant adaptation options
  • welcoming conflict of ideas as a discussion point when it happened
  • demonstrating their own on-farm practices but accepting that change takes a long time
  • understanding the limits of their own influence (i.e. that farmers take ideas from many sources)
  • acting as a ‘soft’ starting point for change for farmers because of their perceived increased expertise.

To find people who are likely to succeed in this kind of ‘sponsored’ participatory program (Jenni Metcalfe citing Massimiano Bucchi and Federico Neresini, 2008), science communicators could look for people with communication styles with these kinds of characteristics.

Related Newsletters

Communicating risk

Communicating risk

Communicating risk – such as in these COVID-ridden times – is not straightforward. How we think of risks is influenced by many things: our personal experiences, trust in institutions, what we need, and more. But we can head off many problems by understanding people, how they perceive risk, and what can go wrong.

read more


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join our newsletter

Our free periodical newsletter is especially relevant to you if you work in the fields of science and/or natural resource management.

If you’d like to be updated when we publish a new post, fill out the subscribe form and you’ll receive an email with our latest scicomm advice.