Given the choice of how to spend a day in Dublin, you might think of a tour following in James Joyce’s footsteps, or perhaps visiting the Guinness Storehouse, or maybe even popping in to see the Book of Kells. But for me, the place to be on 7 December was at the SCI:COM conference 2016. And with a head still buzzing with new ideas days later, I know that was the right decision.
Although the overarching theme of the conference this year was “Let’s not go there: tackling tricky issues in science communication,” the talks during the one-day conference covered a variety of topics including issues of trust, engaging with hard-to-reach audiences, and performing meaningful evaluation of outreach and communication activities.
Participants ranged from students to experienced practitioners, from academics to hands-on communicators, and this lively mix resulted in very fruitful discussions.
During one of the sessions, a participant asked “Who should be doing science communication?” And the answer it seems might be “Everyone.”
As the keynote speaker, Deborah Blum pointed out that science journalists play a crucial role in getting the science news out, but in light of the decreasing number of science journalists there is a clear need for scientists to be active in science communication.
But simply having good intentions and doing your best is not sufficient – strategy, transparency, engagement and evaluation are key ingredients for effective communication and, in a time-poor world, we sell ourselves short by dropping any one of these. This was clearly demonstrated in many of the presentations, either by results from studies or examples of good practice for organising engagement activities.
Encouragingly, when surveyed, many people say that they do want to understand science issues, and much of science communication is geared to addressing that need.
But people also want scientists to listen more to them. A recommendation from one participant nicely summed up the variety of ideas that were put forward to address that need: make the public part of the scientific process. Whether it be via citizen science projects, by involving people in designing medical trials, or by running focus groups to help develop an exhibition or a magazine series. These opportunities for dialogue build trust, which in turn facilitates effective and fruitful science communication.
Coincidentally, many of the issues explored in SCI:COM 2016 are also considered in a recent report (published on 13 December) from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.” As was clear from the conference and from this report, we can now turn to a solid body of evidence to inform our decisions about the most effective way to communicate with different audiences and under different circumstances. And that can only be of benefit to all concerned.