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nSCI White Paper 1: Science Communication Today

First draft, April 2012. Copyright © 2012 National Science Communication Institute. Written by Glenn Hampson. Edited by Nissim Ezekiel, Ricardo Gomez, and Michael Hampson. Cover photo of Vancouver’s Science World by Bruce Irschick. Some rights reserved.
Download pdf version: Science Communication Today

Nearly every aspect of our lives today is infused with science and technology — from health care to finance to entertainment, from the food we eat to the books we read, the cars we drive, and the homes that keep us safe and warm. And the need for more science is obvious. Where are the solutions we demand to illness, pollution, hunger, transportation, and more? Yet against this backdrop of high achievement and even higher expectations, the American public’s faith in science has been declining for years. Science itself is not entirely blameless for this decline. As an institution it hasn’t kept pace with the needs and expectations of society to do a better job of communicating. Part of the reason for this seeming indifference is simply institutional momentum. Part is also due to a lack of leadership on this issue. Many scientists and their organizations know a communications problem exists but there hasn’t been any organized guidance yet on how to improve the overall communication culture in science, nor is there general acceptance among the foundations and agencies who fund science that better communication is something that needs funding. More investigation of this issue is needed, as well as evidence of the benefits of change.

The current culture of science communication in America is defined and supported by four major pillars: journal publishing, institutional capacity, secrecy and recognition. This structure isn’t necessarily onerous; rather, understanding it is critical to understanding what avenues might be open for improving science communication in the future. What are the impacts of the current communication deficit in science? In general they can be grouped into three categories: restricted access, lost opportunities, and a lack of civic engagement. Awareness of the communication problem in science is growing today but only in specific areas and only in fits and starts. There isn’t widespread acceptance yet of the right role of communication in science, nor is there widespread recognition yet that science communication is a unique discipline as discussed in the introduction to this paper. nSCI’s role is to help raise awareness of both the science communication field and the communications deficit in science, define the challenges ahead, facilitate conversations on solutions, and provide assistance to test the utility of new approaches. In all, nSCI has identified eight areas of science that rely heavily on effective communication and that can be targeted with improved communications. These areas are divided into two groups—those that involve science discovery tools and dynamics and those that involve improving science understanding. nSCI’s “discovery” focus areas include research collaboration, informatics, study design, and tech transfer; “understanding” areas include science writing, STEM education, science marketing and public policy. nSCI believes that science needs better communication tools and practices in these areas to help realize the full potential of research and also make faster advances in science education, science policy and other areas where science and society intersect.

All of these better communication tools and practices won’t simply unfold overnight, though, nor will their eventual impacts: scientists and their institutions will first need to agree on the need for change, and then work together to find the best solutions and remain patient and diligent. The thoughtful work and attention that many individuals and organizations have contributed to the cause of improving science communication has been helpful, but a concerted and focused effort like that being proposed by nSCI is now needed to create organized, timely and sustainable change.

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