Econnect celebrates 22 years of science communication this month, and one thing we’ve always prided ourselves on is using research to inform our practice.

Research and conferences that we have been involved in recently have been particularly interested in the relationships between those who research science communication and those who practice it. This month we consider the bridges between science communication research and practice. We look at:

As usual, we welcome your feedback about this (or any) topic.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:
Jenni MetcalfeSarah ColeJane Ilsley, Toss GascoigneClaire Heath & Madeleine Stirrat.



Using all the science communication models in practice

By Jenni Metcalfe

Researchers have theorised three models of science communication: the deficit model, where scientists provide the latest facts through one-way communication; the dialogue model, where scientists converse about their research through two-way communication channels; and the participatory model where lay people are involved along with scientists in deliberating about or doing the science.

With lessening public support for science and increasing concern about new technologies, science communication scholars have urged policymakers and practitioners to move away from deficit forms of communication.

At the end of the last century we saw increasing attempts to engage people in dialogue activities about science. More recently we’ve seen calls for more participatory science communication.

My research using the Climate Champion farmer program as a case study demonstrates that we need all forms of science communication.
Climate champion farmers:

  • Wanted to hear the last climate science from researchers at the biannual workshops we organised – deficit model.
    The information I gained is that the Bureau can be very confident in their prediction of a strong La Niña or a strong El Niño event, but less so when it is in the middle. Understanding that their tools and modeling are getting more and more sophisticated also gives us more confidence in making decisions around it
    (Joe Keynes – sheep, cattle, crop producer – Mt Lofty ranges in South Australia)
  • Valued the conversations they had with researchers, as did the researchers with them – dialogue model.
    The conversation between farmers and researchers is valuable, because it’s a two-way communication – as much as we learn how to use forecasting tools, they learn what they need to refine them
    (Michael Waring, sugarcane grower in North Queensland)
  • Participated with researchers in testing ideas and research products, and creating new knowledge – participatory model.
    Our original list of variables we intended to analyse changed dramatically after talking with climate champions. The way we presented our research results also benefited significantly from communication with climate champions”
    (Bureau of Meteorology researcher).

Farmers discussing round a table
Image: Econnect Communication



Practitioners applying research to their practice

By Toss Gascoigne

We often hear about how important it is to bridge the gap between researchers in science communication and practitioners, and at first glance the gap seems wide. Practitioners find it hard to identify examples of how they have applied academic research to their own work.

Some practitioners routinely conduct simple research to improve their practice. For example, in our workshops, we often start by asking the scientists the topics they most want covered in the training workshop.

Other examples are more sophisticated:

  • The Story Collider uses research into studies of narrative communication to train scientists to tell compelling stories about science
  • The International Centre for Life in the UK reads studies on child development, psychology, anthropology as well as science communication and related fields, to develop a loose ‘theory of change’ to inform its approach to exhibitions
  • The University of West England’s science communication program encourages Masters’ students to partner up with practitioners based in science centres, museums and charities to develop innovative research and evaluation projects.
  • An international project involving the US, UK and Denmark is looking at how theatrical practices engage audiences in discussion, generate questions, and expand thinking about scientific phenomena, relevance of science, and what scientists do. Guerrilla Science colleagues Bronwyn Bevan, Mark Rosin and Jen Wong say this is not about art in the service of science, or vice versa, but specifically about how practices of investigation, sense making, and critique overlap and differentiate across the disciplines.

But it’s less common for practitioners to find practical ideas from researchers, for example, by reading papers from the three major science communication journals: Science Communication, Public Understanding of Science, and the Journal of Science Communication.  And do researchers ever ask practitioners what problems they need solved?

There’s work to be done to smooth this pathway.

Pathway through forest
Image: Drew Stephens



Why facts don’t convince people (and what you can do about it)

By Jane Ilsley

Social Good Now have produced a video that explains that people often make decisions based on emotions rather than facts. They act on a tribal instinct that provides safety in numbers – it is safer to agree with your tribe than be isolated. And, worryingly, the more facts people are given that contradict their beliefs, the more they will stick to those beliefs.

The video reflects three research studies:

  • The University of South Carolina in the US led a study, which showed that people became more hard headed in their political beliefs when provided with contradictory evidence. Interestingly, the research subjects were more flexible when it came to non-political beliefs.
  • The Journal of Neuroscience published a study where observers were found to feel more empathy for someone in pain when that person shared the same social group.
  • Political Behaviour published a study, which describes the “backfire effect” – where corrections (i.e. more facts) actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

When it comes to scientists communicating to the public, this research poses a big problem. Scientists work on the basis of facts, and are often perceived to be different than the average person on the street. So not only are they from a different tribe, they also have lots of facts to share!

So what can scientists and science communicators do?
The main tips are to:
(1)    Identify yourself as part of the same “tribe” by first finding common ground or shared values; for example when communicating about vaccination science most people care about the health of their children.
(2)    Admit when you are wrong – this demonstrates to others that it is ok to be wrong.

The Climate Champion program supported leading farmers to talk to other farmers in their industries and regions about climate science. Farmers were much more willing to converse with people in the same “tribe” than perceived outsiders such as scientists.

magnifying glass looking at the word "fact"
Image: Pixabay



A new hybrid form of activity

By Toss Gascoigne

One interesting initiative is the US’s Research and Practice Collaboratory, which goes beyond a traditional ‘cooperation’ approach to a hybrid partnership model aimed at getting real change on the ground.

A recent workshop in Washington with AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement in Science) and CAISE (Center for the Advancement of Informal STEM Education) helped science communication teams build research–practice partnerships, and was heavily over-subscribed.

Bronwyn Bevan, from the University of Washington, writes:

There’s a literature that differentiates between partnerships and collaborations … In one there is ‘cooperation’ (which can be on going and sincere and mutually beneficial, but doesn’t entail really any fundamental change in what one does). In the other, over time, you get a new hybrid form of activity where what people do (what they question, how they investigate, what they do with the results) shifts through joint work together.”

In the world of health sciences research and more recently improvement sciences research, the argument is that findings are not being taken up/put into practice using the more traditional model and we need to think about more hybrid (partnership) forms of research to get real change on the ground. We have a book being published in June with many examples.

a hybrid of a pug body and raptor wings
Image: Pixabay