Marketing is a key component in the success of every public facing enterprise. In science, marketing simply means communicating science clearly and effectively for the benefit of both science and the general public. What are some of the situations where this applies? There are both internal and external applications of better marketing, some which overlap. Internally, the old adage about how the world will beat a path to your door if you invent a better mousetrap is unfortunately false. It always has been, but in the meritocracy of science this adage just seems like it should be true. Better communication tools mean more effective, timely, and cross-disciplinary collaboration, which might pave the road to more discovery. At the crossroads, better marketing is also useful for more mundane but essential goals like reporting to donors and raising more funds for research. Externally, better communication is critical for everything from educating and influencing policymakers to spinning successful tech transfer initiatives, enrolling participants in studies, getting kids interested in science, and more. There is much room for improvement in the current model of science marketing, and this improvement is rooted in improving the institutional resources, capacity and budgets for this kind of work, which will first require proving the cost, impact, and efficiency benefits of this approach.
Effective science writing underscores everything in science communication. Unfortunately, writing is a field where everyone feels they’re an expert, and changing an information “owner” culture like science into an editorial culture as is normal in any public-facing enterprise (where specialists are ultimately responsible for crafting messages for specific goals and customer groups) can be very difficult. In academia, which considers its primary customers to be other scientists, writing is directed mostly toward journals. Access issues aside, this peer-to-peer writing is often so dense that it becomes unintelligible, even to other scientists. Improving access to more journal articles in more disciplines is a worthy goal but understanding these articles can require a translator, not only because of the subject complexity but also because of the inaccessible writing style that has become the lingua franca of science journals. As science writing ventures into journalism there is often a lack of understanding between scientists and journalists about what constitutes effective writing — finding the right and necessary balance between clarity and accuracy. And when science writing attempts to bypass journalists and go directly to the public, scientists and their institutions rarely have the in-house expertise to do an adequate job of communicating. Explanations for this dynamic vary, but the communication field’s lack of standing in research science may bear most of the blame as well as most of the potential for reform.
Science policy in America is at the core of just about everything — water, energy, health, agriculture, conservation, climate, defense, and more. And of course, many of these issues are also linked and have multiple implications at local, regional, national and global levels. Therefore, given the importance of good science policy it’s critical to our futures to reverse the trend in America of politicizing science policy. It is no longer possible to formulate policies for the public good by drawing on a single set of scientific facts. Every camp has their own “experts” and “facts” and the public is left to choose sides. This is an outgrowth of our information society, but it is also an outgrowth of poor science communication. Creating science policy in America that is more responsive to science begins with improving the communications infrastructure of science. Sound science is necessary for informed policymaking but it is not by itself sufficient. Policy recommendations also need to include storylines and plausible options developed through collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders. And these new policy options aren’t the better mouse trap to which customers will naturally flock. Options need to be presented in ways that reach their audiences, and options need to effectively rebut the science nonsense that can flourish in our sound-bite culture. Establishing more cross-cutting foundations for science policy is also important — active collaborations between research institutions, corporations, infrastructure providers (transportation, energy, etc.), STEM education, and more.
We’ve all heard the sobering news about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education: there aren’t enough qualified STEM teachers in our K-12 systems, most high school students graduate without an adequate background in math and science, and students who choose to study math, science and engineering in college have very high rates of attrition compared to other majors — meaning that most switch majors or don’t finish their degrees at all. nSCI believes that better science communication can help repair this situation — in schools, in the public sphere, in the public policy arena, and more. Science education doesn’t start in the classroom, after all, but with kids getting excited about science, and science policy works better if the public understands and is inspired by science and discovery. Building and maintaining this excitement and inspiration is slow pitch softball for marketers: making textbooks more entertaining, making sure teachers are properly trained and educated and have the right kinds of support, making sure that science education has a strong hands-on component, and making sure that Congress follows through on its frequent promises to markedly increase funding for STEM education (commitments that have recently been picked up by private industry due to the increasingly urgent need for a more STEM-literate domestic workforce). STEM reform efforts also need to focus internally, however: is there a more fundamental reason why kids don’t or can’t follow through with science that’s not related to homework, teachers and funding? Examining the way science is communicated to students will help, as well as examining the role, necessity, and impact of math education requirements and methods in science education since math education is clearly the weakest link in college-level science education. This issue will be explored in detail in a future nSCI White Paper.