Reflecting on practice (and practitioners) in science communication

I will be chairing a session on science communication practice and would appreciate your help in shaping our discussion. We often hear how important it is to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners, but are we making any real progress in this regard?  Please let me know what you regard to be the most important questions that we should discuss around this topic? I look forward to hearing from you.

Current issues on the agenda (open to change) are:

  • What is science communication practice? How is this defined? How is it different from science PR (if it is)?
  • Who are practitioners? What roles do they play?
  • Science communication versus science PR: Are their reasons for ethical concerns?
  • Practitioners and their application (or not) of science communication research results
  • Practitioners who do research (and vice versa)
  • How do science communication researchers and practitioners interact?
  • What/how do we know about research questions and needs raised by practitioners
  • Evaluation of science communication practices

7 thoughts on “Reflecting on practice (and practitioners) in science communication”

  1. The US National Science Foundation funded the Collaboratory ( which has the mission to “bring(s) educators and researchers together to develop more equitable innovations for STEM teaching and learning. It is a massive project! I am mentioning it because it hits closest to home on the age-old “bench to bedside” (the medical equivalent) debate that exists in every profession. I think the principles explored in the Research + Practice Collaboratory might have relevance to our discussion. So what are some key questions here:
    Trivial: why do researchers not research what practitioners identify as their urgent needs? Why are research results not helpful for practitioners? Why do practitioners not access research results? [All of these questions have some seemingly straightforward answers that can – at times – be misleading in their simplicity. They normally gear us towards better, easier, more digested ways to bring ideas from one side to the other.
    Less trivial: What are the values, goals, incentives, etc. that drive practitioners (in all their diversity) and researchers (in all their diversity)? What are fundamentally different ways in which practitioners and researchers think about the same problem (should they even focus on one)? How are researchers deal with “wisdom from practice”?
    Really complicated: What is the level of complexity that is inherent to the communication system? [Example: education research is really difficult because a classroom, for instance, is way more complex as a system than, say, a temperate Northern forest – but we do not acknowledge that to our own peril] How does this level of complexity impedes our ability to develop evidence-based heuristics that could guide practice across contexts?
    Totally unbelievably complicated: If the answer is 42, what was the question?

  2. The most important practice question to me is, “What qualifies as a successful outcome of science communication?”

    Is a successful outcome simple awareness, or some element of cognitive/behavioral change? Does success look more like persuasion or more like understanding? Does your organisational management view success the same way you do? And finally, is the success you seek measurable?

  3. Might be interesting to reverse the assumption that underpins this session by looking at examples of practitioners who do research (and vice versa).

    I asked the PCST discussion list for examples of researchers working with practitioners. 18 responses, almost all were practitioners who also conducted research as part of projects they were doing. Examples include:

    • The Story Collider ( which uses research into studies of narrative communication to train scientists to tell compelling stories about science
    • The Life Science Centre in the UK reads studies on child development, psychology, anthropology as well as “science communication” and related fields, to develop a loose ‘theory of change’ to inform its approach to exhibitions
    • The UK’s UWE in Bristol Our encourages Masters’ students to partner up with practitioners based in science centres, museums and charities to develop innovative research and evaluation project. See
    • An international project involving the US, UK and Denmark is looking at how theatrical practices engage audiences in discussion, generates questions, and expands thinking about scientific phenomena, relevance of science, and what scientists do. This is not about art in the service to science, or vice versa, but specifically how practices of investigation, sense-making, and critique overlap and differentiate across the disciplines.  Eg, the role of materiality in scientific and artistic investigations, producing tentative representations, role of critique in advancing practice, etc.

    Bronwen Bevan from the Collaboratory said:

    “There’s a literature that differentiates between partnerships and collaborations, and while one can debate which word means which, the salient distinction is what your question refers to: In one there is “cooperation” (which can be ongoing and sincere and mutually beneficial, but doesn’t entail really any fundamental change in what one does).  In the other, over time, you get a new hybrid form of activity where what people do (what they question, how they investigate, what they do with the results) shifts through joint work together.  In the world of health sciences research and more recently improvement sciences research, the argument is that findings are not being taken up/put into practice using the more traditional model and we need to think about more hybrid (partnership) forms of research to get real change on the ground.”

    So according to her, it all hangs on the nature of the relationship…

    (Let’s change ‘Are their reasons for ethical concerns?’ to “.. there …’)

  4. Following Rick’s contribution, for me the main question about science communication practice is – what is a successful outcome? If we do not define sucess we surly cannot asses it.
    A preliminary attempt at understanding aspects of sucess in PEwS by Noah Weeth Feinstein, Rainer Bromme, Sarit Barzilai, and me was published a few weeks ago on PuoS blog. Mainly our framework asks:
    1. Is success evaluated internally, by the people engaging with science, and/or externally, by observers or sponsors?
    2. Is success conceptualized in terms of the quality of the engagement process and/or by the outcome or result of this process?
    3. Is success evaluated in epistemic terms, related to the quality of knowledge and the processes that produce it, and/or in non-epistemic terms, related to things other than knowledge (e.g., advancing desirable behaviors, attitudes, or emotional states)?
    This may be a starting point.

  5. Our third and final session about practice/research projects was originally set out by Jenni with the intention of providing a space for how to support better practice/research collaborations & delving examples and experiences we have collectively about what work and what doesn’t. Looking through the discussions here on the blog as well as on emails it seems to me there will be a huge amount of overlap and likely some shifting around of concerns, interests and ideas over the course of next week, so I’m loathe to structure the session too much at this stage.

    To that end, can I ask that everyone comes with at least two practice/research project examples in mind (I’m thinking one good/one bad), so that we can try to tease out what the useful components are (for instance, are relationships key, as Bronwyn suggests?). Within that, I agree with Marina’s suggestion that Alex’s question (How might we overcome normative views of good/bad, upstream/downstream forms of communication when the challenges & approaches in science communication are obviously diverse) becomes a useful framing. Many thanks also to Ayelet for sharing the rubric she & her colleagues have developed for understanding science communication practices.

    I also want to reserve space to think about praxis. Not least the following three questions/thoughts (which we may well be sick of by the end of the week!)
    1) What is science communication research if not allied to practice? This is surely a practice-based field, but what does that mean?
    2) In the UK there has been a big push for what Martin called “evidence-based practice”, which rings alarm bells for me as it seems to be typically used as a smokescreen for the exact opposite (certainly in education policy at any rate, c.f. the on going debates about grammar schools). It also makes me respond like a recalcitrant teenager, desperately wishing that I could decouple expectations about relationships between practice & research. But can we? In social justice terms, without aiming to change “something” about practice & policy equity oriented research is simply descriptive, so a commitment to praxis becomes pretty central.
    3) In an email somewhere Joan mentioned she felt like the “research”/”practice” discourse was a red-herring and served to make unhelpful distinctions, while Bruce pointed out that the vast majority of people involved in science communication may have little idea of the broader field in terms of what constitutes best practice, or research, which brings us back to Marina’s questions about professionalism.

    So to that end I think I’m going to play around with the session plan during the week, once we have a sense of how our conversations are going. I suspect things will emerge over the week that will derail a nice, neat plan, but please bring/invent your project examples anyway!

  6. Emily raises the important question of “what is science communication research if not allied to practice?” While it CAN be tied to practice, I think it need not be. Science communication research can help us understand and think about general science-society relationship questions. The humanities scholar in me wants to reserve space for “pure” research — driven by curiosity about how the world works.

    (Of course, the same scholar in me says: Hmmph! Trying to preserve the idea of “pure” research when STS research generally has shown how artificial is the line between pure and applied research!)

  7. Some fundamental questions in this thread.

    Our agenda lists “Topic 6a: Collaborations between science communication research and practice”, in 2 sessions chaired by me and then Emily. They are currently scheduled as the LAST discussions before we move to “Bringing it all together”.

    Some of the issues identified above may well be resolved (or at least, discussed) by the time we reach this final day. The focus questions raised in the draft agenda may well have been dealt with by then.

    So, like Emily, I’m going to keep an open mind about how we best use this time, listening to points made during the first two days.

    Chair: Toss Gascoigne

    Examine issues relating to:
    • How many science communicators are both practitioners and researchers?
    • How much practice is already informed by research?
    • What are the important gaps between scholars and practitioners?

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