top of page

Putting Community back into SciComm

Title: Reorienting science communication towards communities

Author(s) and Year: Lindy A. Orthia, Merryn McKinnon, John Noel Viana, Graham Walker; Published in 2021.


TL;DR: Community-level engagement is often overlooked but science communicators can have an important impact in communities by building interpersonal relationships, co-designing projects, and recognising shared identities.

Why I chose this paper: As a TV Producer, I’m often aiming to reach the broadest audience and I rarely get to directly interact with them. I’ve been really inspired by outreach that is tailored to and shared with a specific community, from birdwatching collectives for people of colour to workshops for supermarket night-shift workers. I would love to create similar community activities and this paper covers some of the theory behind how to approach such collaborations.


The Background

A “community” may be defined as a group of people who come together based on shared identity or concerns. Their shared characteristics may include where they live, their socioeconomic status, activities they enjoy together, or their ethnicity, to name a few.

In many science communication journal articles, “community” has typically been used to only address outreach to localised groups and authors rarely addressed community engagement in papers but focused on the individual and societal levels - as was the case in the 2013 special issue of PNAS devoted to ‘the science of science communication’.

However, addressing communities is becoming increasingly important across science disciplines. In order to take samples and increase ethnic diversity in genetic studies, biomedical researchers are building relationships with ethnic communities who may have previously had negative experiences of Western medicine and unethical scientists. Health communicators are working alongside community members from the First Peoples on the continents of Australia who can then go on to discuss issues and share knowledge within their own communities.

It is important as science communicators that we recognise the importance of relationship building at the level of shared identity — community. We can build trust that leads to meaningful impacts. Community engagement can give more people (more diverse audiences) access to science when they otherwise may have been excluded - recognising these efforts may help to reduce the White, Western mainstream. Also, communities themselves have a collective power greater than that of any one person and the potential to go on to influence changes in society.

With this in mind, Orthia and her colleagues set out to evaluate: What does community-orientated science communication look like in current academic literature and practically in the field, e.g. museums and science nights?

The Research

Orthia and her colleagues reviewed science communication literature and found that previous research rarely defined or highlighted work with communities. They identified 37 papers that meaningfully explored the concept of non-academic ‘communities’ - giving advice on developing community engagement or case study examples of community engagement projects.

Delving deeper, the researchers analysed the community-oriented approaches, categorising them into three models (that may be further defined in future research):

Neighbourly - Tends to serve the interests of science and have broad goals of promoting“engagement with science”. Many offline science communication activities are described as community-centred because their location allows access to and for a local community. For example, ‘Nerd Nitebrought science talks into local bars and pubs where the target audience congregated. Whilst these initiatives may lack long-term relationship building between scientists and the community, they could be the starting point of relationship-building.

Problem-solving - Prioritises a practical solution or outcome to a problem faced by the community (although the problem may have been identified by the scientist). Long-term, two-way relationships can be built through co-designing of projects, with community members contributing their own experiences and priorities into the decision making process. For example, in the aftermath of a mine fire, the Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a community-assisted air quality monitoring system. In this citizen science project, air scientists worked with over 30 community members to find out what information the community would want to know about air quality and how best to present it so the information could be clearly understood. Orthia and her colleagues uncovered that the majority of analysed papers reflected on problem-solving projects.

Brokering - Primarily serves the community’s interests. These projects operate within communities and trained community leaders or members act as brokers to match relevant science communication activities for their communities. In some cases, a science communicator from within a community or with access through shared identity may be the broker. Brokering requires collaboration, being open to community needs, and the particular community to lead their own communication journey. For example, the Beyond Perception exhibition, hosted by Melbourne’s science centre Scienceworks, was co-designed with local teenagers who otherwise felt disconnected to the kids- and family-orientated displays. Through discussion, the teenagers shared their priorities - socialising spaces, freedom to explore, and even an area to charge phones! Based on this, the Beyond Perception exhibition was self-guided, non-linear, and careful not to patronise.

Problem-solving and brokering approaches are generally more deeply community-oriented than neighbourly approaches. In all these approaches, co-design - where community members are consulted and included in the planning and decision process - helps to tailor engagement activities to the particular audience.

The Takeaway

I believe that science communicators must develop relationships with communities that they intend on serving. By having conversations tailored to those communities, we can build trust and overcome misinformation.

Orthia and her colleagues conclude the paper by acknowledging the complexity of relationship-building, communities-oriented approaches to science communication, especially considering the great diversity of communities that exist. There is a great deal more to learn and researchers should look to review more case studies and explore approaches to community engagement from other disciplines.

Reflecting on their research and engagement examples, Orthia and her colleagues offer helpful insights to guide science communicators in their relationship building with communities:

  • Recognize that all communities are different and may require different approaches. Look to work within a community’s cultural norms and decision-making process. Be careful not to exploit communities or impose agendas onto them.

  • Physically situating projects within a communities’ local geographic space can instantly improve access for the community members to attend.

  • Science communicators who share an identity with a community or are themselves in the community can navigate the culture and conversations more naturally. However, if you are an outsider to the target community, you should build relationships with existing community networks to support both them and yourself.

  • Commit to develop long-term relationships and appreciate that community-oriented science communication works vastly better when driven by communities themselves.

  • Community engagement is not only important for reaching diverse audiences, it has the potential to stimulate social change in concentrated groups that could have significant and long-term impact compared to diluted efforts on a broader national level.

  • Community approaches can greatly help in overcoming current exclusion and inequalities in current science communication and outreach.

Edited by Mahima Samraik and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: [Tayaba Noreen - tayabanoreen786]


bottom of page