Survey Reveals the Who, What, and So What of Science Communication Training Programs

Updated: Feb 8

Title: Science Communication Training in North America: Preparing Whom to Do What With What Effect?

Author(s) and Year: Anthony Dudo, John C. Besley, Shupei Yuan, 2020

Journal: SAGE Science Communication (closed access)

TL;DR: A survey of science communication trainers in North America illustrates that trainers are focusing on knowledge over strategy and inclusion.

Why I chose this paper: As a science communication trainer, I learned that to address current gaps in the science communication training landscape in North America I should focus on promoting equity-based practices, supporting out-of-training communication opportunities, and applying existing research on evaluation practices.

A growing interest in science communication has led to the rapid growth of science communication training organizations and programs. But the structures, curricula, goals, and impacts of these trainings have not been systematically studied, and best practices have not been developed.

To address this gap, the authors asked “training programs are preparing whom to do what with what effect?” To answer this question, the authors conducted qualitative interviews of 32 science communication trainers in North America. Trainers were asked a series of survey questions focusing on their trainees, curricula, strategy, and evaluation.

The Survey

Who receives science communication training?

Research shows that science communication reflects the same structural inequities that characterize the institution of Science. Through the survey, the authors examined the extent to which training programs exhibit and catalyze diversity and inclusion within science communication as well as the ways training programs prepare scientists to engage with stakeholders who are different from them. They found that the trainers were largely white and held graduate degrees. Trainees were largely self-selecting, skewed toward female and early-career scientists, and varied in STEMM fields and career stages but lacked in cultural and ethnic diversity.

What are scientists being trained to do?

Research from the field of public relations emphasizes choosing the “why” of communication before the “how.” Scientists commonly believe that the “why” of communicating scientific knowledge to an audience is to impact their behavior. This deficit model of communication - the belief that public skepticism of science is caused by a lack of understanding and information of scientific knowledge - has repeatedly proven to be false. The authors found that most science communication training programs do communicate the myth of the deficit model but still mainly train scientists “how” to craft their messages through storytelling, reduced jargon, improved visuals, and interaction with journalists and social media. Few training programs addressed communication objectives beyond increasing scientific knowledge, such as building relationships and trust.

Public relations research also emphasizes audience-centered dialogue and active listening. The authors found that training programs also emphasize the importance of these practices but were vague about the benefits of doing so. The trainings often provided scientists with the important opportunity of practicing their communication within programs, but few trained scientists how to identify and create communication opportunities with diverse audiences outside the programs.

Do science communication trainings work?

Science communication training programs are financial investments by scientific organizations. Evaluating the trainings is an important step in determining if the programs are effective and in developing best practices. The authors found that most programs receive positive feedback about scientists’ attitudes after trainings, but few programs use formal evaluations to analyze the impact on scientists' skills, future engagements, or audiences. Most training programs recognize the need to go beyond their current evaluation efforts but lack the resources to do so.

The Results

Overall, the authors found that the science communication training programs surveyed in North America are largely conducted by (and for) a heterogeneous demographic. Most training programs focus more on helping self-selecting scientists develop their message through storytelling and eliminating jargon, and less on helping scientists develop strategy and create engagement opportunities, without robust evaluations.

The Impact

The trainers surveyed recognize the benefits of investing in diversity, with some proposing tuition scholarships and invitations as a way to expand demographics of both trainers and trainees. The trainers also recognize the need to go beyond the deficit model of communication in order to change behavior. The authors note, in particular, the need for trainers to help scientists create engagement opportunities outside of training programs. Finally, training programs would benefit from better evaluation methods informed by science-of-training literature and supported by funding organizations.

The authors acknowledge that further research using other methodologies and locations would provide a better understanding of the training landscape. The survey illustrates, however, that the field of science communication training is growing, and that there is a breadth of knowledge from public relations and from the science-of-training that can be incorporated to develop best practices and benefit science communication training programs everywhere.

Edited by Stephanie Deppe

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