Being an Authentic Science Communicator

By Sam Sander Effron

Attending the AAAS conference, Science Transcending Boundaries, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It profoundly expanded how I view science and communication, both individually and together. I attended lectures that spanned disciplines and discussed groundbreaking science with international researchers. I reflected on the art of science communication, with journalists that have been reporting for longer than I’ve been alive. Yet across all of these experiences, despite noteworthy distinctions one commonality impacted me the most.

After each interaction with a fellow attendee I left feeling that I had engaged with their genuine self. Not that I typically find myself in situations where I feel deceived, but in this hotel, for this weekend, there was a particularly robust air of sincerity. Nobody balked at an intimate question or hesitated to share an embarrassing personal experience that might elicit further probing from a curious novice. As we asked questions and divulged candid responses, we incrementally revealed our idiosyncrasies to one another.

At the core of our perspectives lie diverse backgrounds—geographic, socioeconomic, politic— the histories that shape who we are and what we bring to the table. Our personalities too affect our attempts to understand the world around us. Both deep-seated passions and transient interests alike converge to create voice that is our own—a unique angle through which we grapple with our surroundings. These multifaceted identities shape not only how we comprehend ideas, but also how we convey them.

Our intersectional identities help us connect to others, superseding the often-impersonal façade of the academy. We can interweave our personal experiences with science to create a narrative that is relatable. Shared identities bolster relationships and strengthen trust, which is critical for success in communication. Only when we consider our audience can we tell an educational story that they will engage with and care about as human beings.

Courtesy of NatureJobs Blog

Courtesy of NatureJobs Blog

Additionally, the choice of writing style for a given audience can profoundly affect how our messages are received. Although manuscripts and blog posts share the same rules of grammar and overlap in topic, the tactics to writing them are apples and oranges. Journal publications are often shaped by discipline-specific jargon, margin widths, and so forth. On the other hand, science communication to a general audience can take on a variety of forms, with the simple goal of relaying technical information in a clear manner.

To this end, it’s okay to bend some conventions. We can literally slant the font to make subtle emphases. OR WE CAN RAISE OUR VOICES RIGHT OFF THE PAGE. All we need to do is make our point, whether it is housed in a clever anecdote or illustrated by a colorful infographic. Modern digital platforms are well-equipped to blend styles across different types of media (e.g. HHMI’s BioInteractive is a great teaching resource with lesson plans, instructional videos, written material, animations, etc.). This allows room for the communication to evolve, as new information and technologies become available to better explain a concept at the particular moment. 

These foundations of science communication, the identification of voice, audience, and approach, are fundamental to begin talking science. Another critical factor that must be identified from the outset is the scope of the science to be discussed. This can range from the narrow purview of a report that focuses on a particular study, to a discussion on broad scientific concepts with accompanying societal implications.  

Writing on narrow research is focused in length and in topic. The goal is to provide relevant background on the discipline, explicate the findings of the study, and elaborate on its broader impacts. While subjective commentary here is normally kept to a minimum, insightful quotes from authors and comments from un-affiliated experts in the field (both confirmatory and critical) can substantiate claims.

Likewise, reviewing wider concepts is a task that requires the integration of many lines of research, often spanning institutions and years of work. While this may describe a clean scientific consensus, there is nothing wrong with delving into muddy controversy. If anything, the latter illuminates the realities of the contentious world of research, providing transparency to the audience and improving credibility.

While all communication is obligated to accurately depict facts, it is important to remember that these broader pieces are more likely to be referenced by non-experts. Therefore it is critical not to misrepresent the conclusions of a single study as vetted scientific fact, nor declare consensus on topics of ongoing debate.  

Science as the study of the world around us is inescapably interdisciplinary. Chemistry affects biology affects psychology affects sociology affects… well its turtles all the way down. Research requires narrow focus in order to answer specific questions, but there’s no reason that we must maintain such a myopic view when talking about the bigger picture. Our diverse personalities engender novel approaches to science and paths for relating to others. We can use this to our advantage and build bridges to people who are typically excluded from academia, since they too have a vested interest. At the end of the day, communication is about inclusion, as we do our part to advocate for science transcending boundaries.