8 Sharing Science with the Community

Our society advances depending on the scientific literacy of its citizens. Scientifically literate individuals – such as science graduates – are trained to think scientifically. Not only do they understand scientific concepts, but they also know the nature of science and how we came to know what we do.

Thinking scientifically and critically – separating false claims that lack scientific evidence from scientifically valid information – is essential for everyday life. Individuals who are scientifically literate are able to make responsible decisions and participate in society in a positive way.

Citizens cannot be expected to improve their scientific literacy on their own, but many people can play a part in this important endeavour. This includes graduates from science, the medical and dental professions, the allied health disciplines, and other science-related fields including science journalism.

Improving the scientific literacy in our communities depends on the ability of science-educated individuals to reach out to our citizens and communicate science to them in such a way that has a long-lasting affect.

Your task is to inspire the community, fascinate them – and alert them when appropriate. Overall, you must help to educate the public and instil a passion that makes them want to learn more. This is how we can get people to change their behaviours in ways that will positively affect our future. Scientifically literate members of society will then go on to educate their own children, who will in turn instil scientific literacy in their children and so on.

The general public is an audience with variable educational backgrounds and scientific understanding. Initially, it may be more difficult to communicate effectively with them than with your scientific peers. But this just takes practise. Many science curriculums focus on teaching facts. Communication tasks tend to be largely restricted to the scientific community.

In this chapter, you will learn more about what some high-profile scientists have to say on the importance of scientific literacy and science communication to the general public or non-expert audience (see Box 8.1). We will share some simple tips on how you can communicate effectively with the community at large to make your impact.

Box 8.1: What experts have to say about scientific literacy and science communication to the general public

Communicating science has been discussed by many eminent scientists and scientific associations.

Professor Ian Chubb

Professor Ian Chubb was Australia’s Chief Scientist in 2011–15. The Chief Scientist provides high-level independent advice to the Prime Minister and other ministers about science, technology and innovation.

Science has a marketing problem. There’s no question about that. The manner in which we get across the sheer awesomeness of science is often too muted. We’re not constantly out there. We see single events as being enough and so, as I’m constantly saying to scientists, you know, just because you have a symposium or press release or a press conference, that’s not enough in itself. – Ian Chubb

Regarding primary school children:

[Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan] once said that we take these young children, who are totally curious and we then progressively beat it out of them. And I think that one of the things that we have to do is to maintain the sense that they can go to primary school and they can get shown science, visually, how it’s practised, not taught out of a book, not just, you know, follow me, this is a principle. Why? Well it doesn’t matter just learn it. That they’re actually shown the awesomeness of science from a very early age and when that happens all the evidence is it sticks. – Ian Chubb

Regarding climate change:

I would say part of plan B is to present the evidence in a way that’s accessible to people who are interested but not necessarily trained in the disciplines of science. And that’s where the message has got to go and I think that we started the run too late in that we said, you know, all of this work was done. It was kept largely – largely not exclusively – within the scientific community and it suddenly gets dumped on the public that this is a real problem that we’ve got to address right away. We should start earlier, we should work progressively through it, take the public with us as we go but we do need to make sure it’s not the typical techo and scientific talk but it is, in fact, without at all being patronising but simply saying these are the real facts, this is what it means, these are the implications and we need to do something about it. – Ian Chubb

Professor Suzanne Cory

Professor Suzanne Cory is one of Australia’s most distinguished molecular biologists. She is currently a Research Professor in the Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow of The University of Melbourne.

Every scientist I know who has been inspired to be a scientist has been inspired through a teacher … Teaching science well at school is the way to inspire the next generation of scientists. It’s also absolutely critical to have a scientifically literate community. So but science is still taught the old chalk and talk way, often by teachers who have not been trained in the subjects in which they’re forced to teach. So we need to invest in this country in training more and better science teachers and give them the resources to teach with and we need to teach them … we need to teach our students by doing science, which is what you were saying and the Government has invested in two programs that the Academy of Science has developed over the last the years. There’s a Primary Connections Program and there’s Science By Doing for junior secondary schools. Those programs are totally transforming the way science is taught in schools, they need to be in every school in this country. – Suzanne Cory

Professor Ian Chubb and Professor Suzanne Cory’s comments are taken from a special science edition of the ABC program Q&A called ‘Science: precious petals to passionate teachers’ (Jones et al., 2014). The comments here are taken from the ‘Keeping students interested’ and ‘Climate change’ segments.

The Australian Academy of Science

The mission of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS, 2015) is to:

  • champion Australian scientific excellence
  • promote and disseminate scientific knowledge
  • provide independent scientific advice

The AAS aims to benefit of Australia and the world (Australian Academy of Science, 2015). Scientists from the AAS found that the number of students studying science in years 11 and 12 is declining: in 2012 only 50% of year 12 students studied science (Goodrum et al., 2012). The authors recommended improving student engagement in science studied in years 7–10 to generate interest that will increase numbers of senior high school students continuing to study science. The AAS also recognises the importance of developing scientific literacy in primary school students, which led to the implementation of the Primary Connections  initiative that aims to engage students in science at a younger age (Primary Connections, 2013).

The National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF, 2015) is an independent federal agency created by the United States Congress in 1950 to:

  • promote the progress of science
  • advance the national health, prosperity and welfare
  • secure the national defense.

In 2006, the NSF reported that the American public had a limited understanding of science and technology, despite being supportive of the fields (Kahlor & Stout, 2010). The public’s lack of knowledge about science can have far-reaching negative implications, including that they are unable to evaluate scientific information presented by public and allied health agencies, pharmaceutical companies, journalists and medical practitioners (Kahlor & Stout, 2010)​.

For the student scientist, it should be clear that one of the many important things that we need to achieve is an increase in the scientific literacy of our citizens, if humanity is to have the best possible future.

8.1 Where to start

So what are some relatively straightforward and simple ways that people can communicate both formally and informally to the general public – in a way that is effective? Although there is no definite and correct answer, the suggestions in Figure 8.1 should steer you in the right direction.

Bubble map of enhancing scientific literacy including arrows to knowing your audience, ensure your topic is significant and relevant to your audience, include information about how science came to know facts on your topic, know the effect you wish to have on your audience, ensure your communication platform is appropriate for your audience, and use language suitable for your audience
Figure 8.1: How to enhance scientific literacy in the general public. Source: Image by Nikki Andersen adapted from La Trobe University, and used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence. 

To help you decide what to do next, choose your starting point – one of concept, audience or mode – and refer to Figure 8.2.

If you are interested in a particular concept, follow the blue arrows in Figure 8.2.

  • Who needs to know about this concept?
  • What mode of communication is this audience most likely to respond to?

If you have identified an audience you would like to communicate to, follow the red arrows in Figure 8.2.

  • What is a concept this audience needs to know about?
  • How do you best communicate to this audience?

If you have identified a mode of communication you would like to use, follow the yellow arrows in Figure 8.2.

  • Who would be most likely to respond to this mode of communication?
  • What is a concept this audience needs to know about?
Diagram with arrow showing path between topic, audience and mode
Figure 8.2: Relationship between concept, audience and mode when communicating science. Source: Image by La Trobe University used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence. 

Know your audience

Successful science communicators must be able to recognise and understand their target audience, and make the science accessible to them. Examples of discrete audiences include:

  • preschool children
  • primary school children
  • secondary school students
  • university students
  • patients diagnosed with a particular condition
  • family members of patients diagnosed with a particular condition
  • older people
  • people from a particular demographic (e.g. non-English speaking background)
  • inactive individuals
  • overweight individuals
  • smokers

As you can see, your audience can vary a lot!

To narrow down and understand your audience, conduct an audience analysis. This will allow you to communicate with them more effectively.

Resources

One of the resources for The writer’s workshop: skills for success course offered by the Business Administration Program at the University of Washington is a series of questions to help you analyse your audience (University of Washington, 2014). This resource lists three main areas to consider when analysing your audience: demographics, disposition and knowledge. These questions are written in reference to a reading audience, but they apply to all audience types. The resource also suggests that you consider how each of the factors you identify affects your readers’ attitudes, expectations, and opinions about you and your topic.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics website allows you to access national and regional statistics on the Australian population. Results from the most recent census as well as statistics on social trends are available.

Ensure that your topic is significant and relevant to your audience

To have a significant and positive impact on improving scientific literacy in the community, your choice of topic should be contemporary and highly relevant to your audience. Equally as important to this, you need to communicate in such a way that – in the end – the audience truly believes the issue really matters to them. If your audience believes this, their attitude and behavior will start to change in line with what the science is telling us.

Remember that members of the general public are likely to be more interested in the implications and impact of science, rather than the nitty-gritty that we talk about with our scientific peers.

A good way to determine why a particular concept is important is by asking yourself that exact question. Is it related to a significant health issue for the Australian population, such as mental health, inactivity, poor diet, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease or cancer? Is it an important global issue, such as climate change?

At the global level, there are myriad issues that the world faces. Energy, food and water security; climate change; biodiversity; infectious diseases and conditions such those caused by the Zika COVID-19 virus and Ebola virus; health issues such as cardiovascular health and diabetes; air pollution; and mental health for trauma survivors. These are only a small percentage of the world’s most important problems – many more need to be communicated to the public.

Resource

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website has a list of national health priority areas, as well as data on a range of health and welfare issues sorted by subject.

Contrary to what you might think, science professionals are yet to successfully communicate these issues adequately to the general public. If we improve our science communication to the public and increase scientific literacy, we increase our chances of successfully confronting these challenges both domestically and globally.

Box 8.2 provides some examples of topics, target audiences and desired outcomes.

Box 8.2: Examples of topics and appropriate target audiences

Never forget that the knowledge we have is because of science. Wherever possible, include relevant information on how we came to know what we do. In other words, how has the science evolved that has led us to our current understandings on the issue?

It’s also important to know what types of attitude and behavior changes the science is telling us should take place. Your communication should help the population move towards these changes, along with an understanding of why the changes should occur.

Type II diabetes prevention

Audience and task: Communicate to a group of newly joined Weight Watchers members on how they can reduce their risk of developing Type II diabetes. These individuals will be overweight and at an increased risk of developing the disease.

Desired outcome: increased activity and weight loss, and decreased risk of developing type II diabetes in these individuals, combined with an understanding of how poor diet and inactivity increases the risk of developing diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease prevention

Audience and task: Communicate to the general public on what the risk factors are for development of cardiovascular disease and what can be done to reduce the risk. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in Australia, so in this case it would be appropriate to pitch to the general public.

Desired outcome: increased activity, weight loss in overweight individuals, a healthier diet rich in antioxidants, quit smoking or never taking it up, decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, combined with an understanding of the science behind the risks of cardiovascular disease.

The benefits of quitting smoking

Audience and task: Communicate to the smoking population on what the dangers of smoking are and some tips on how to stop.

Desired outcome: Quit smoking and understand the health benefits of doing so.

The benefits of not taking up smoking

Audience and task: Communicate to a group of primary school children on what the dangers of smoking are and some tips on how not to take it up.

Desired outcome: reduce rates of smoking uptake in our young population and an understanding of the health benefits of not taking up smoking.

The benefits of regular physical activity

Audience and task: Communicate to a group of primary school children on the benefits of regular physical activity before bad habits set in.

Desired outcome: increased activity levels reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, combined with an understanding of why exercise helps do this.

How to prevent the spread of the Zika virus

Audience and task: Communicate to the general public in South America and North America on what science tells us about the best way to treat and prevent the spread of Zika virus.

Desired outcome: decreased spread of Zika virus, combined with an understanding of how Zika virus spreads.

Ensure your communication platform is appropriate for your audience

Consider the vast array of available platforms for communicating about your topic to your audience:

  • websites
  • posters and brochures
  • newspaper and magazine articles
  • songs, games and videos
  • classroom activities
  • podcasts and mobile apps
  • artworks

It is important to engage with the audience in a genre appropriate to that audience. For example, if you would like to create a video to communicate your topic, would it be best to select a topic that would be of interest to 15–20 year olds or to 60–70 year olds? Consider how you would justify your decision. Box 8.3 provides a list of resources that can help you decide on your communication platform.

Regardless of the communication platform that you choose, take care to present your communication piece professionally – this is likely to have a greater impact on your audience.

Box 8.3: Useful programs for creating communication pieces

There are many useful programs available for creating communication pieces. Many of these tools are easy to use and produce a professional looking product. This is not an exhaustive list of useful software but it’s certainly a great place to start:

  • Adobe Spark can help you create social graphics, web stories and animated videos – in minutes
  • Microsoft Sway helps you make and share interactive reports, presentations and stories
  • iMovie or Windows Movie Maker come standard with your Apple or PC
  • Moovly allows you to make animated videos, presentations, infographics and videoclips
  • Visme allows you to create presentations and infographics
  • Audacity is a free, sophisticated audio recording and editing software
  • Canva is a free-to-access website that allows you to do simple graphic design, and create flyers, posters and presentations
  • PowToon allows you to create animated videos and presentations
  • Videoscribe offers a 7-day free trial to create whiteboard-style animations

Which platform to use?

Use language suitable to your audience

To successfully communicate your topic or concept to your target audience, you must consider the unique characteristics of your audience and their knowledge in the area.

As a part of your audience analysis, you will research the specifics of your audience. This analysis will tell you important information about the demographics, disposition and knowledge of your audience. All of these factors will impact on your choice of language for your communication piece.

There are a few do’s and don’ts when communicating with non-scientific audiences:

  • DO use plain language
  • DO NOT use scientific jargon
  • DO use compelling arguments and scenarios
  • DO use symbolism and analogies.

Avoid using scientific jargon

Jargon is the specialised vocabulary of any profession, trade, science or hobby. Scientific jargon is that vocabulary specific to science, and each field of science will have its own jargon.

Any biochemist researching in the area of antioxidants and oxidative stress will be familiar with terms such as free radical, superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, reactive oxygen species, superoxide, hydroxyl radical, hydrogen peroxide, SOD, GPX and H2O2.

But do not use any of this jargon when communicating with non-expert audiences. Instead, you will need to replace the relevant jargon with simple words that your audience will understand:

Low levels of alpha-tochopherol promotes endothelial dysfunction.

Becomes:

An appropriate intake of vitamin E in the diet is important to maintain healthy blood vessels. (Scientific statement translated for a group of individuals who need to improve their diet to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.)

Use compelling arguments and scenarios

Although you should never exaggerate the science when communicating with your audience, it is appropriate to tell the truth and share scenarios that may be confronting.

For example, if you are communicating with a group of smokers, it might be appropriate to show pictures of what a smokers’ lung looks like. Likewise, let your audience know what their health outcome could be if they continue to smoke heavily.

Compelling arguments and scenarios are more likely to affect the audience and – as we already know – this brings potential for action and positive change.

Use symbolism such as analogies

Using symbolism or analogies is not a necessity when communicating science to the public, but it may be appropriate in some circumstances.

An analogy is a comparison between one thing and another, typically to explain or clarify something.

Given that scientific concepts may be difficult for the general public to grasp, using an example of something the audience is already familiar with can help them to understand what you are trying to tell them.

In Video 8.1 you will see the clever use of analogy and art to communicate science.

8.2 Examples of communication pieces for non-scientific audiences

As you can see from the examples in this section, the ideas for communicating effectively are endless.

It might be easier than you think to create something that will have an impact on a population group and help increase the scientific literacy in our society. What are you waiting for?

Video 8.1: Michiko Maruyama and Art of Learning [2 mins, 40 secs]

Dr. Michiko Maruyama applied for medical school after surviving a rare cancer — an experience she doodled about and submitted as a comic strip for her medical school application. Now, she regularly uses art to communicate with her patients, and she dreams of opening a studio dedicated to integrating art, design and medicine. You can view Dr. Michiko’s art on their website the Art of Learning. 

Note: Closed captions are available by clicking the CC button below.

Magazine article explaining research findings to a non-expert audience

You need to write a 500-word article for the non-expert audience explaining the pathophysiology of a disease. In addition, you include recent research findings from a  published journal article: Vance, E., Is Estrogen the New Ritalin?, in Scientific American Mind. 2010, Munn & Co.: New York, NY. p. 6. Below are some new stories explaining research finding to a non-expert audience.

Box 8.5: New stories

News story published on a website explaining exciting new scientific inventions for studying disease and what this means for patients

Source: Cincinnati Children’s. (2014). Lab-developed intestinal organoids form mature human tissue in mice.  Available from: http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/news/release/2014/lab-grown-intestines-10-19-2014/.

News story published on a website about a new potent antibiotic that doesn’t encounter any detectable resistance

Source: Kelland, K. (2015). “Scientists discover ‘game-changing’ new antibiotic for first time in 30 years.” Available from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-09/scientists-discover-new-antibiotic-for-first-time-in-30-years/6007730

News story published on a website explaining an important discovery of a genetic mutation

Source: Kelland, K. (2015). “Gene mutations key to heart muscle disease identified.” Available from http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/01/15/4162649.htm.

News story published on a website announcing the trial of an Ebola vaccine

Source: Lapook, J. (2014). “Ebola vaccine human trials begin.” Available from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ebola-vaccine-being-tested-in-rapid-fashion-say-researchers/

Classroom activity/lesson plan to help explain a concept to primary school students

A primary school teacher needs a lesson they can use in one a 1-hour class. You could provide a solution that includes a few PowerPoint slides, an activity for the students to do and some questions at the end so they can test how well they did.

Example resource

Classroom activity/lesson plan to help explain a concept to first-year university students studying physiology

­First-year physiology students need to understand a challenging concept in an upcoming workshop. The communication activity could help students with terminology or an activity a team of students could engage in to understand the concept.

Resource

Carvalho, H. (2011). A group dynamic activity for learning the cardiac cycle and action potential. Advances in Physiology Education, 35(3).

An old poster saying covere coughts, cover sneezes
Figure 8.3: Poster. Source: ‘ “Cover Coughs, Cover Sneezes” – NARA
– 514081’ by US National Archives and Records Administration, used under CC0 1.0 licence.

A poster displayed in a clinic waiting room to communicate ways to reduce the risk of contracting/transmitting an illness or disease

You  could use your graphic design skills to design a poster that incorporates some physiology and a public health message. You could also design a brochure to give health centre patients to take home.

See some historical examples of public health posters collected by the US National Library of Medicine.

A game for university classmates to help remember a difficult concept

You studied a challenging concept in second-year physiology, and want to design a fun game that will help students understand the physiology or to revise before an exam.

Resource

Odenweller, C., Hsu, C., & DiCarlo, S. (1998). Educational card games for understanding gastrointestinal physiology. Advances in Physiology Education, 275(6).

A video explaining a useful concept to non-experts

You have learned to use some video production software, and you want to use these skills to make a video (or 12–14 frame storyboard) explaining and important concept

A song explaining a useful concept to non-experts

If you are a talented songwriter, you write a song suitable for your target audience that explains a scientific concept. Your target audience could be for primary school or university students, or for the general public – for example, a jingle for an advertising campaign.

Video 8.1:  Circulatory song [3 mins, 20 secs]

A podcast in which you explain an important concept for a non-expert audience

You love making podcasts, so you make one about something that you find interesting and important enough to be published on your university website.

A mobile app for smartphones or tablets that allows students of any age to better understand a concept

You may want to design a mobile app that secondary or tertiary students can use to start understanding physiology – in a fun way!

An artwork for display that demonstrates your understanding of a concept

If you are a talented artist, you could create an artwork (painting, mixed-media model, sculpture or a set of mounted photographs) that could be displayed in the newly refurbished physiology laboratories, or in an appropriate setting such as a physiotherapists waiting room. The artwork explains an important concept in a creative and appealing way.

Click the drop down below to review the terms learned from this chapter.

Copyright note: Content from the following source is reproduced with permission from the copyright holder and is excluded from the Creative Commons Licence of this work. No further reproduction of this quotation is permitted without prior permission from the copyright holder.

Jones, T. (Host), Cory, S. (Panellist), Doherty, P. (Panellist), Schmidt, B. (Panellist), Cheng, M. (Panellist), Chubb, I. (Panellist), Fitzgerald, M. (Panellist). (2014, September 15). Science: Precious petals to passionate teachers. [TV series episode]. In P. McEvoy (Director), & T. Jones (Host). Q + A. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/qanda/science-precious-petals-to-passionate-teachers/10656196

 references

Australian Academy of Science. (2015). About Us. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from https://www.science.org.au/ about-us

Goodrum, D., Druhan, A., & Abbs, J. (2012). The status and quality of Year 11 and 12 science in Australian schools. Australian Academy of Science. https://www.science.org.au/files/userfiles/support/reports-and-plans/2015/year11and12report.pdf

Jones, T. (Host), Cory, S. (Panellist), Doherty, P. (Panellist), Schmidt, B. (Panellist), Cheng, M. (Panellist), Chubb, I. (Panellist), Fitzgerald, M. (Panellist). (2014, September 15). Science: Precious petals to passionate teachers. [TV series episode]. In P. McEvoy (Director), & T. Jones (Host). Q + A. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/qanda/science-precious-petals-to-passionate-teachers/10656196

Kahlor, L., & Stout, P. (2010). Communicating science: New agendas in communication. Routledge.

National Science Foundation. (2015). About the National Science Foundation, Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://www.nsf.gov/about/.

Primary Connections. (2013). Primary Connections: Linking science with literacy. Retrieved October 21, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20130917034951/primaryconnections.org.au/index.html

University of Washington. (2014). Audience analysis. Retrieved December 5, 2014, from http://faculty.washington.edu/ezent/aaaa.htm

 

 

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