How Do You Define Science Communication? (#DefineScicomm)

Defining Science Comm.

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Think about it for a second… How many different ways do you describe science communication each day? In the morning you may call it outreach, around at lunchtime you reference engagement, and by the end of the day, you’re having a heated discussion about widening participation or sharing knowledge. It can certainly be confusing…

I came across this interesting paper which offers some definitions that may serve as a starting point for a broader discussion. What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK (full citation below) was recently posted to F1000Research and is currently awaiting peer review.

In the paper, Dr. Sam Illingworth and his co-authors from Manchester Metropolitan University used the results of a literature review and a survey of science communicators to present ‘concise and workable definitions for science outreach, public engagement, widening participation, and knowledge exchange, in a UK context.’ The survey sample size was pretty small (47), and all were practicing science communicators. It included both closed and open-ended questions. The results were interesting:

“Sixty-six percent of the participants agreed that their definitions of outreach, public engagement, and widening participation aligned with those of their colleagues, whilst 64% felt that their personal definitions matched those of their institute.

Only five of the participants felt as though the alignment of their definitions was different when comparing colleagues to institutes. Of these five, three of the participants felt as though their definitions matched those of their colleagues but not those of their institute, whilst two of the participants considered their definitions to be aligned with those of their institute, but not of their colleagues.

These results suggest that in a still emergent field, the participants of this survey are likely to be the driving influence behind the definition of science communication at an institutional level.

It is also worth noting that whilst the majority of the participants felt as though their personal definitions of outreach, public engagement and widening participation matched those of their colleagues and institutes, there were approximately a third that did not feel as though this was the case. If the participants that took part in this survey represent a fair cross-section of people working in science outreach, public engagement, and widening participation across the UK then it is somewhat alarming that such a significant proportion of them feel as though the fundamental basis on which their work is founded lacks such clemency in its definitions.

What is not clear from the above statistics is if there is any agreement between the participants’ personal definitions of outreach, widening participation, and public engagement.”

Responses to the open-ended questions were converted into word clouds. Here are a couple of examples:

Define Outreach

Engagement

Perhaps the most noticeable result from this study is that the open-ended responses to the survey resulted in a wide range of definitions of outreach, public engagement, widening participation and knowledge exchange amongst the participants, despite the quantitative data indicating that two thirds felt that their definitions of outreach, knowledge exchange, and public engagement agreed with those of their colleagues. This would seem to indicate that further communication is required both within and between institutes to ensure a level of consistency amongst science communicators.

Based on the current literature, and the results of this study, the following broad definitions are offered for each of the four considered topics:

  • Outreach: a one-way discourse, in which scientists communicate their research to the general public.
  • Public Engagement: a two-way dialogue, in which scientists converse with members of the general public in a mutually beneficial manner.
  • Widening Participation: any activity that engages with social groups under-represented in HE, in order to encourage them to attend university.
  • Knowledge Exchange: any activity that involves engagement with businesses, public and third sector services, the community and the wider public, and which is monitored for funding purposes.

The authors admit there is some overlap in the definitions, and that they’re largely dependent on the context in which they are used. They also know the study doesn’t provide a complete solution for the varying (and sometimes competing) definitions of science communication.

Let’s kick off a broader discussion…

How do you define science communication?

Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #DefineScicomm.


Additional Information:

Illingworth S, Redfern J, Millington S and Gray S. What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review, http://f1000r.es/5p0] F1000Research 2015, 4:409 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.6858.1)

Download a copy of the survey questionnaire. 

Download the full set of survey results.

Contact Sam Illingworth on Twitter.

I previously published a Q&A with Dr. Illingworth in which he discussed the value of scientists engaging with schools.

11 thoughts on “How Do You Define Science Communication? (#DefineScicomm)

  1. Kirk Englehardt wrote (29 July 2015 by):
    > How do you define science communication?

    “Communication” includes everything reported publicly (and, in general, mutually) within a community of individuals;
    the specification to “science communication” adds the requirements that the communication elements should be

    – attributable to specific “authors” (individuals, or proper subsets of individuals of the community),

    – archived (for enduring public access),

    – with the possibility for the authors to (conspicuously) add and link corrections or amendments, annotations and references, and

    – with the possibility for all members of the community to (conspicuously) add and link commentary or further questions (constituting separate elements of science communication in their own right).

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  2. I define science communication as any finding in the scientific community shared with the general public in a way that affords greater understanding for a majority of readers in that community.

    I really enjoyed that you took the time to define and give specific meaning to outreach, public engagement, widening participation, and knowledge exchange; however I believe that when creating a more concrete set of expectations for these terms in the scientific community we as a team will have to take into account the different groups we are trying to reach out to, and the challenges that cross-cultural differences may bring to the table.

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  3. I would define science communication on a broader spectrum. I think that, as a whole, science communication is any discussion relating science and/or scientific studies to the general public. This overarching definition would mean that “science communication” would include all of the subsections; such as outreach, public engagement, widening participation, knowledge exchange, and any other potential ways of communicating science to the “outside world”.

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  4. To me Science Communication is more of an overarching definition. Science Communication is any way in which scientific experiments, topics, and/or results get out to the general population and are then discussed. This includes outreach, public engagement, widening participation and knowledge exchange, as well as any other subset of communication that may exist.

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  5. I think of science communication as a type of communication in which conveys a scientific fact or hypothesis to a large group of people, typically non experts. This type of communication can outreach to the public, or engage the people in an attempt to get feedback.

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  6. What I found interesting was that within the words that interconnected, many of them were similar yet others were not, but depending on the context of the word(s) given, you could make a connection. For example, the two words “one way” and groups.” Usually, groups will compromise and have different ways of interpreting messages. But one way could also mean that the group came to a conclusion and they are now all going in one direction to further their understanding. Even though we all might be exercising our expertise is science communication, there are multiple ways of doing so which enables us to interpret things differently, but learn from others at the same time.

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  7. What I found interesting was that within the words that interconnected, many of them were similar yet others were not, but depending on the context of the word(s) given, you could make a connection. For example, the two words “one way” and groups.” Usually, groups will compromise and have different ways of interpreting messages. But one way could also mean that the group came to a conclusion and they are now all going in one direction to further their understanding. Even though we all might be exercising our expertise is science communication, there are multiple ways of doing so which enables us to interpret things differently but learn from others at the same time.

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  8. This article encompasses the broad nature of the field of science communication. It is still an emerging field and includes a variety of topics, which is why there are many possible definitions for it. There are no right or wrong definitions because science communication takes on a different role depending on the situation. For example, science communication uses an entirely different approach in a classroom than it does in a peer-reviewed article. That being said, science communication at its most basic is science-related knowledge exchange in a manner that is easily understood by the target audience.

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  9. I believe that one of the most important aspects of science communication is engagement, consistent with the “public engagement” definition offered in the article above. A two way dialog is the most effective way to communicate science, especially when this communication is taking place with the general public. Science is often times “scary” and “confusing” to the general public, but through engagement with good science communicators, the general public can begin to understand the scientific process and perhaps even begin the enjoy learning about new scientific concepts. Engaging the public will also allow them to build trust in science, which is extremely important as science is intimately intertwined with society today (from medicine, to food, to the computer I’m using to write this comment). I don’t necessarily think that it’s the public’s job to become more science literate – it is our job as science communicators to explain science in a way that is engaging, consumable, and understandable to everyone.

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  10. Since this is such a new field, I think you will find a significant amount of diversity between definitions of science communication. However, it seems that a few consistent themes are emerging. I define science communication as the translation of scientific knowledge from the language of technical definitions that scientists use to the language of users of this knowledge. The tricky parts are defining who the users are and what they need to take away from the science being communicated.

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