It’s the most common question I get, of course! At the end of the day, I’m interested in the exchange of information about the changing marine environment between marine scientists and the public, which is why I’m calling it the Marine ExChanges project.
Australia’s science engagement strategy, Inspiring Australia, identified marine science as an area for opportunities to engage the public in science. Literature in field of science communication tells us that having people participate in science is the best way to truly engage them. Participatory approaches are becoming more popular as a science engagement strategy, and there are many different ways that this can take place. One type of participatory science is called ‘citizen science’, where the public are asked to contribute to scientific knowledge in some way (often by collecting information for scientists). So I am interested in ways that the public get involved in marine science, and how this might impact on Australians’ attitudes and interest in science.
The focus of my research is on the potential for marine citizen science to increase public engagement in science generally. The title for my thesis is ‘Science engagement from the audiences’ perspective: can participatory marine science communication increase public engagement in science?’ I am asking marine users about:
- the factors which influence their engagement (or lack of engagement) with marine citizen science,
- the ways they would prefer to participate in science,
- whether marine citizen science is likely to attract people who are not really interested in science in the first place,
- the communication needs of the audience, and
- other background factors.
Using Redmap Australia as a case study, I conducted interviews with their key target audiences in 2014. Redmap is a marine citizen science project which asks Australians to log sightings of uncommon marine species in their local area. This project aims to increase our understanding of how marine species are extending their range due to changes in the oceans such as warming waters. My interviews are took place in Hobart, Perth, northern NSW and Townsville. The information I gathered from these interviews have helped me develop questions for a national survey of marine users, which is running from 20th February – 20th April 2015. More information about the survey can be found at http://bit.ly/marineexchanges.
I am fortunate enough to have support not only from my school, but also from two external organisations. The first is the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), which is the lead organisation for Redmap and is based at the University of Tasmania. The second is CSIRO, which helped me travel to Townsville to conduct my interviews. My supervisors are Dr David Lloyd (SCU), Prof Les Christidis (SCU) and Dr Gretta Pecl (UTAS).
The challenge for science communicators
The challenge for science communicators (and by this, I mean anyone who communicates science, not necessarily someone who is employed in that role) is to understand how the field of science communication research can assist them in creating communication strategies that are more effective and bring people back into the discussion about science. We know that information on it’s own is no longer sufficient to bring about the levels of engagement aspired to by those involved in science communication. Simply producing more media releases and newsletters is not enough. Australian science communication researchers such as Jenni Metcalfe and Craig Cormick express a very real concern that continuing to communicate science in this way increases the knowledge gap between interested and uninterested audiences. This, of course, has implications for our nation’s ability to be innovative and adaptive to changes.
Where do we go from here? Multidisciplinary collaborations are a start. The US National Academy of Sciences has in the last couple of years embraced dialogue and contributions from the social sciences in particular, and we are starting to see a similar discussion being had in the Australian Science Communicators network. It really is exciting times for social researchers interested in science communication.
Ways psychology can help us understand how to communicate science better
Psychological research can inform science communicators about the way people interpret and act on information, and the different methods that are useful in increasing understanding and attention to the message.
Cognitive psychologists such as Paul Slovic (2010), Patricia Linville and Gregory Fischer (1991) and Whitmarsh (2011) have increased our understanding about why it’s so hard to communicate about things like climate change. Their research shows that people have a limited capacity to worry about things – they call this the ‘finite pool of worry’ – and that communication involving large scale impacts that are distant in time or space are simply too far beyond our finite pool of worry to become a priority for us. This work explains why we are better able to care for the people immediately around us, or for events that happen locally, than we can for large numbers of people in countries far away, or for the plight of polar bears in the melting arctic. We might feel sad for a moment when we hear about the huge number of children dying from starvation overseas but our brains simply aren’t geared to respond to scale and complexities of these events. And so we experience emotional numbing, or what Ezra Markowitz et al. (2013) calls compassion fade. The next thing on our mind will tend to be something immediate such as what on earth am I going to cook for dinner, or gee I need to pick the kids up from school. I’m not saying that we can’t care about large-scale events, but this research explains why it’s so hard to get people to respond to them. Paul Lupia (2013), a social psychologist, also draws our attention to the limited carrying capacity of our working memory. He reminds us that in the context of science communication, people’s attention is scarce and we need to understand that people’s core values, fears and aspirations compete for attention all the time.
Decision research reveals that when presented with information, people find it easier to accept the status quo (or do nothing) than to act. This default option behaviour (Kazdin, 2009) has been shown to operate in numerous situations, even when the information indicates that action will result in a better outcome. From a communications perspective, Thaler and Sunstein (2008) advise us never to underestimate the ‘power of inertia’.
Adding to the challenge for science communicators, is the fact that people seek information that reinforces their own world views and ignore information that contradicts their position. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias (Nickerson, 1998). You can certainly see a lot of this effect in the way people search for information on the internet. In a similar vein, communications scholar Dietrum Scheufele (2013) explains that people use perceptual filters, which are formed by their prior experiences and cultural norms, when processing information. Research in the area of judgement and decision making also draws attention to the essential role that affect – or emotions – play when people create meaning from information (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Yang & Kahlor, 2013). This meaning-making is required for people to be able to make judgements and decisions about information, which lead to behavioural responses to it. Cues from significant others in a person’s social network (called social norms) are also known to play a part in people’s information seeking or avoidance behaviour (Yang & Kahlor, 2013). The famous Asch (1956) conformity experiments demonstrate that people tend to conform to others behaviour even when they know they are wrong. When you become aware of this herd-like behaviour, you can start to see it operating in many parts of our lives. There has also been a vast amount of research on the impact of framing messages in different ways, and on the effect a person’s political position plays on the way they interpret information which although really interesting, unfortunately I don’t have time to go into today.
What all of this means is, as Nisbet and Scheufele (2009) conclude from their experience in science communication research, that
‘…any science communication efforts need to be based on a systematic empirical understanding of an intended audience’s existing values, knowledge, and attitudes, their interpersonal and social contexts, and their preferred media sources and communication channels.’
While there are calls for this level of audience research in science communication, there is to date no clear advice in the field on how to best go about conducting research into people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and so on. One thing is certain, though. Communicators cannot rely on their own intuition to know which questions to ask. Fortunately social psychology has a constructive framework on which to base research into these factors affecting communication with audiences. You may have heard of this theory before – it’s Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behaviour, and it’s the most widely used theory of human behaviour for developing persuasive communication strategies. Surprisingly, though, there have been very few applications of this theory in science communication, but I suspect this is largely due to the fact that most science communicators have a background in science or journalism rather than the social sciences. In essence, this theory is used to uncover three key influences on behaviour: behavioural, normative and control beliefs. Behavioural beliefs are beliefs a person has about the outcomes of a particular behaviour and these beliefs lead to attitudes towards that behaviour. Normative beliefs are beliefs that there are certain expectations from other people about the appropriateness of a particular behaviour, and these perceived expectations motivate the behaviour by the individual. These beliefs lead to subjective norms, sometimes called social norms, and reflect a person’s belief of how others think they should behave. Control beliefs are beliefs about the degree to which a person can actually perform the behaviour, or not, depending on various factors, and the strength of their control over performing the behaviour. These control beliefs are based on perception and may be different from actual behavioural control (that is, whether the person can, in fact, perform the behaviour). In the case of the audience for science communication, it is the combination of these beliefs, intention and actual behavioural control that leads to a person engaging with the scientific information presented (or not).
Conducting empirical research into audiences allows communicators to distil salient messages that the audience is able to respond to. This is critical for more effective communication because as psychologist Robert Cialdini (2003) and others reveal, relying on intuition or imposing your own knowledge and assessment of others’ knowledge may result in not just missing the communication mark and wasting precious time and resources, but there is a very real danger of backfiring and distancing people even further.
However, when audiences’ values, beliefs, attitudes and communication needs are well understood, communication strategies can be designed to take into account phenomena such as finite pools of worry, default decision effects, and confirmation bias. This information can then inform the ways that scientific information can be framed or transformed into messages and stories that will connect with people’s core values and really resonate with audiences. Using these new strategies to communicate with audiences, while keeping scientific credibility intact, will help science communicators have greater impact.
Ajzen, I. (1991). The Theory of Planned Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211.
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70 (Whole no. 416).
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.
Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(1), 1-17.
Kazdin, A. E. (2009). Psychological Science’s Contributions to a Sustainable Environment. American Psychologist, 64(5), 339-356.
Linville, P. W., & Fischer, G. W. (1991). Preferences for separating or combining events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(1), 5-23.
Lupia, A. (2013). Communicating science in politicized environments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (Supplement 3), 14048-14054.
Markowitz, E. M., Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., & Hodges, S. D. (2013). Compassion fade and the challenge of environmental conservation. Judgment & Decision Making, 8(4), 397-406.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 1767-1778.
Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Communicating science in social settings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3), 14040-14047.
Slovic, P. (2010). The feeling of risk. London, UK: Earthscan.
Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Whitmarsh, L. (2011). Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: Dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change, 21(2), 690-700.
Yang, Z. J., & Kahlor, L. (2013). What, Me Worry? The Role of Affect in Information Seeking and Avoidance. Science Communication, 35(2), 189-212.
In the world of science communication, there is a constant search for ways to improve the effectiveness of communication strategies and increase engagement with audiences. All too often, science is still being communicated in a way that we know isn’t effective. Research and theory in the fields of communication studies, psychology and the discipline of science communication itself tell us that simply providing more information or telling more people about science doesn’t result in increased audience engagement. Communicating in this one-way model is, of course, necessary up to a certain point. But at some unknown stage there is a tipping point after which there is simply too much information resulting in the audience feeling swamped or even under attack, and there is a very real risk that they disengage even further.
The issue is, of course, complex and there are so many different ways to look at what’s going on, and what might help improve the situation. And more than likely, every case is going to have it’s own unique characteristics that require special consideration of all the factors involved. But there does seem to be a gap of knowledge in science communication practice when it comes to the social sciences, and since we’re talking about communicating with people, there is huge potential for the social sciences to help science communicators get their message across more effectively.
So, what are some of the opportunities and ways the social sciences can help? The glaringly obvious one to me is audience studies. In order to communicate effectively, the communicator needs to understand their audience – we hear this time and time again in the communication literature. But how much do the science communicators know about their audience, and the barriers that exist to communicating with them (and with others they haven’t yet identified)? Some of the literature and conversations I’ve had with science communicators indicate that – if acknowledged at all – understanding the audience is often left to a best guess. This is due to a lack of time, resources and/or expertise. And this is where social science, particularly social psychology (from my perspective), can help fill in the blanks. It’s not just a matter of doing a “quick and dirty” survey of the audience. It’s a matter of doing valid and reliable social research – knowing the right questions to ask, which theories to draw on from the literature, how to analyse the data and so on.
If we look at the whole process of how science is being communicated, we see that audience studies are just one part of the puzzle, and there is some interesting research in the science communication literature that also turns the focus on other actors such as the scientists, the media, and the communicators themselves. Research has been done on the difference between scientists and non-scientists personalities, and communication preferences, all of which have a bearing on the communication process. There has also been some work done on the interactions between scientists and journalists, and quite a lot of work in the area of science in the media.
But there is so much more scope for social research to be done in science communication, particularly when you start zooming in to focus on issues specific to certain sciences or topics in a field that may (or may not) be receiving attention in the broader public. My particular area of interest (although it isn’t the topic of my PhD research), is the issue of ocean acidification. Since I’m surrounded by marine scientists and keep an ear out for research in this area, I can’t help being alarmed by the urgency of the problem. Marine scientists are detecting a wide variety of changes in the oceans due to increasing acidity (caused by rising carbon dioxide levels), and for the majority of species, this is not good news. The changes in the chemistry of the seawater affects the entire ecosystem – some areas and species more so than others, which in turn impacts we landlubbers. Significant effects are expected in the not-too-distant future on our sources of seafood, livelihoods, and other marine resources, as well as the marine life we all know and love (and don’t love, or don’t even know about yet). So, why is this not a topic of conversation in the general public, the way climate change now is? Ocean acidification is related to climate change, and it’s a topic that receives a lot of attention in some fields, but when I talk to people outside marine science, including people from other sciences, I often hear “Ocean acidification … what’s that?”.
This is where social science can help create more meaningful, relevant and targeted communication strategies, and there are a number of different ways to attack the problem, with help from our friends in the humanities as well (such as media and communication studies). I think there’s a massive opportunity here and wish I could be part of it, but for now I need to get on with getting through my PhD. The cynic in me thinks that the problem will still exist by the time I finish anyway. But the good news is that we can learn from the communication problems that climate change science has encountered, and fast-track effective communication strategies with this knowledge, aided by robust social science research.
If you’d like to find out more about the ocean acidification, I recommend having a look at http://oceanacidification.wordpress.com/
Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Big Science Communication Summit, held in Sydney at the University of New South Wales. The aim of the summit was to “map the emerging challenges for science communication in Australia and to collaboratively develop best-practice solutions”.
Science communicators from all around Australia attended either in person, or online. The technology behind it all was impressive. For me, the major benefit was meeting up with other researchers in the field of science communication, many of whom I had already been communicating with via email, so this was a great opportunity to meet these people face-to-face.
The Summit broke the audience into groups to discuss five different issues faced by science communicators. The idea was that we’d discuss the challenges in each of these five streams and come up with some solutions to the problem, with the aim of developing best-practice. Each participant could choose two streams to attend. I was encouraged to see two streams which were right up my alley … “IT’S A TWO WAY STREET – Engaging ALL Australians in the sciences” and “PARTICIPATIVE SCIENCE – Encouraging the best in citizen science”. With a great deal of enthusiasm, I took off to these streams hoping to get a better idea of what others were doing and maybe some interesting ideas for where I could take my research. Bear in mind, though (which is something I hadn’t really thought too much about), I was coming into this conversation as a researcher and had just spent the last three months getting up to speed with where science communication, communication studies, and relevant psychological and social psychological research is at.
The conversations I observed and the “solutions” put forward left me gob-smacked. At the end of the second session, one of the moderators read the expression on my face and asked me what was wrong. Almost everyone around me was still stuck in the one-way, or deficit, model of communication, which we know from the research just doesn’t work. This method of communication assumes the audience is deficient in their knowledge, and that if we just tell them more about science, they will increase their awareness, understanding and support for science. Many of the current projects, and more disturbingly, many of the solutions described at the Summit are simply doing more of the same – they are increasing the amount of information, sometimes telling it louder (and to be fair, occasionally in more interesting ways), but assuming that more is better. The research tells us otherwise, for example, we know that simply giving people more information can result in a backfire effect and we end up turning more people off. We also know that communicating this way is likely to be preaching to the converted, or science “interested” people, and is not going to truly engage all Australians in science. Fortunately for me, there were several others in the audience who were thinking along the same lines, so when I spoke up and pointed out this disconnect between the theory and practice several people thanked me afterwards.
So why are we still stuck in this one-way method of communicating science in Australia? Why are so many science communicators not looking at the research and using this knowledge to increasing the effectiveness of their communication? I think there are a number of reasons for this, but my immediate observations are:
- many science communicators in Australia have a background in “science”, as opposed to
“social science”, so their focus and understanding about human behaviour and communication is limited,
- many science communicators in Australia are young and lack the experience of dealing with broader communities,
- the younger science communicators I spoke to at the Summit seem to think that social media is the answer to everything (one even suggested the actor who plays Dr Who is the answer to everything – and interestingly, this “communicator” would not listen to others perspectives),
- many of the science communicators I spoke to who are employed by science institutions are required to simply produce information about the science (more “telling”), so there is a lack of leadership in effective communication and engagement,
- and many of the science communicators in the audience were not aware of where the research on science communication is at, and what it can tell us about effective and engaging communication.
I don’t want to leave readers feeling despondent, as I did after the first day. The good news is that this means there is still plenty of work and research to done, and conversations to have, if we really want to fulfill the aims of Inspiring Australia – to become an innovative nation where there is a strong and open relationship between science and society.
It’s the latest catchcry in many fields – “engagement” – and in the arena of science communication, we’re told we need to increase engagement in science for our nation to be a truly innovative country.
But what does engagement mean, exactly? Do we mean more people signing up for our newsletters, more web-site hits, more people turning up for talks and presentations, more people participating in research projects (and to what extent?), more science-related letters to the editor? Or what? What is it that we want to increase?
Without a definition, it’s impossible to measure baseline levels of engagement, and then to re-measure it after our communication strategies have been put in place, to see how successful we were. The good news is, there are plenty of definitions out there – I just haven’t seen one that I’m entirely comfortable with, but some come close. I guess what I’m really looking for is one where the audience truly becomes part of the scientific process itself – and I realise this is something that’s much easier said than done. I wonder – does the theory match the practice?
Here in Australia, my own university (SCU) has a hub for innovation and connection, called Sustainability, Partnerships and Community Engagement (SPaCE). They define engagement as:
“a collaborative process that connects the University with communities of all scales in a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, expertise and experience in the context of partnership, trust, respect and reciprocity“.
I’m hoping to interview the head of SPaCE to find out, practically, how this works and whether the audience is truly part of the process. The reason for my concern about this, is that the national audit of science engagement activities (the report for which was released at the start of this year – 2013), shows that most science engagement activities in Australia are delivered in a one-way, or “deficit” model of communication. The bulk of these engagement activities were designed to inform people about the science, and increase their knowledge, awareness and literacy. Not much talk of really involving people in the scientific process, in a participatory approach.
In the UK, the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement [NCCPE], who deal with the Higher Education and Research sector, define public engagement as “the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”
OK – I like the use of “interaction” and “listening” and the goal of mutual benefit, but I also suspect that engagement can be more than just two-way if you have multiple audiences – that is, the various groups you are trying to engage can also communicate with each other as well as their own networks beyond the original connection between themselves and the communicator. It ends up being multi-channeled and multi-directional.
Interestingly, the Wellcome Trust in the UK choose not to use a definition of engagement (or research for that matter) because they don’t want their work constrained by such things when technology and funding change at such rapid rates around us. But, they still use the term, so presumably they know what they mean by it … although, to be fair, from where I sit on the other side of the planet, they seem to have a good sense of what it means for them to engage with the public. They talk about embedding the science in the cultural landscape, increasing trust in science, inspiring and educating the public, engaging in dialogue and collaboration. At this stage, I’m still not sure how they go about measuring their success – but I will be asking them about that! Again, I want to know if their vision of engagement matches the reality of practicing it.
There are plenty more sources of definitions for me to investigate, which I am working my way through. There certainly seems to be a wide range of interpretations, where engagement means different things to different people, given that they are trying to engage different audiences for different reasons.
What a mix of nerves and excitement – I’m about to give my first presentation on my PhD today. I’ve offered the academics around me a carrot to come along and listen to what I have to say. In the current system of measurement of academic success – that is, how many highly ranked journal articles you have – it would seem there is little incentive (or time!) to bother with any sort of communication of research outside these journals. But I’m concerned that the bulk of the scientific community is not keeping up with the way the rest of the world is connecting with each other, and the problems that creates for the relationship between science and society.
I’ll write more about my thoughts on this in future posts, but for now I’d like to share with you some interesting information about the way one particular social media tool – Twitter – can help dramatically increase our citation rates (and thereby not only communicate our science more broadly, but also result in higher rankings in our field … which leads to many more benefits when we start thinking about it!).
The Eysenbach (2011) article I mention in my presentation shows us that highly tweeted papers are also likely to be highly cited. Melissa Terra has also found that tweeting and blogging your research papers can have significant impacts on the number of downloads of your articles, which presumably will result in more citations. And Darling et al (2013) discuss the the role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication, concluding that Twitter can be a valuable tool for science communication in the 21st century.
If you’re interested, and not yet familiar with Twitter – don’t be scared. Go to Twitter and start learning about it. It doesn’t have to be something that “pings” you constantly with annoying and trivial messages if you think of it as a communication tool for your profession. Make sure you connect (or “follow”) with other users who you identify as useful for spreading the word about your work, and get them to follow you. Then you can dip in and out of it when and where you like, and keep up with events like conferences as they happen – which is really useful now that funding cuts are affecting our ability to travel and connect with other scientists. Happy tweeting!