The world of the science communication practitioner

Facilitator: Marina Joubert; Rapporteur: Michelle Riedlinger

This report focuses on four key issues for science communication practitioners: science communication as a profession; the relationship between theory, research and practice, national focus of science communication activities; and practices across the developed and developing worlds.

Science communication as a profession

Two recent commentaries, published in the Journal of Science Communication, were considered as good starting points for discussions around standards, norms and explicit codes of conduct for science communication practice (Weingart & Guenther, 2016; Medvecky and Leach, 2017). For many Bellagio contributors, the field of science communication was not yet considered a profession. One practitioner in the group contrasted science communication practice to public relations, which they considered to be a professional practice with its own code of conduct. However, practitioners at the table were more inclined to see science communication as a profession separate from other communication-related professions. It was suggested that as more journalists move into science communication roles in organisations, issues of credibility and trustworthiness would become increasingly important for the field to consider.

The relationship between science communication theory, research and practice

Participants questioned the idea of the theory-practice/practice-academic divide that they believed was a founding myth in the science communication field. Participants also spoke about the needs of scientists who communicate science and whether science communication researchers were reaching them. Some discussion focussed on the lack of rigour in some of the science communication research going on. Some practitioners indicated that science communication research offered them little in the way of improving their practice.

Others thought that the role of science communication researchers was not to provide answers to the challenges of practitioners, but rather to problematize science communication practice, and create more reflective practitioners. For example, the implications for practitioners of science communication research findings into equity and social justice issues were discussed. This included research with marginalised groups that found particular science communication activities at best irrelevant and at worst, compounding and exacerbating colonial, racist, heteronormative values. Researchers around the table called on practitioners to put greater emphasis on reflective practice, combining social justice, science education, and democracy.

Another participant summed up what they believed to be the key roles for science communication practitioners and where science communication research was important to consider: managing up to ensure that science communicators had a seat at the decision-making table; becoming critical practitioners of science communication; and ensuring that activities were measurable and evaluation was meaningful.

The national focus of science communication practice

The starting point for discussions on the topic of geographical focus was the idea that researching science communication outside of a national context is possible, but that science communication practitioners are always confronted by the national context of their work. The usefulness of “retreating to national boundaries” was questioned during the session but the focus remained fixed on national contexts for the most part.

One of the geographical tensions identified for science communication practitioners was the funding context. The general consensus was that this dictated the objectives of science communication practice (e.g. science communication for democracy versus science communication for achieving specific organisational objectives, such as demonstrating competitiveness in the marketplace). In the latter, participants considered that there was an “interested” nature to the communication because practitioners were there to help the organisation communicate strategically. An example provided was that of a university promoting positive science stories to combat negative press in other areas.

Government (at all levels) and private funding mechanisms often supported science communication for public interest and many examples were provided to support this. However, the mix of motivations of funders to promote science, promote careers in science, and create a critical public was raised as a place where objectives could become confused. This mix of motivations was thought to create challenges for practitioners in terms of understanding their roles. In many countries, there was little funding focus on emphasising science as part of culture and decision making.

Towards the end of this discussion, participants highlighted the diversity of practice within countries (e.g. mezzo-level communication and diversity of communication practice) that required further study. This included details of a nation-wide study conducted in Portugal looking at the “meso” level of organisations (or the level of research institutions and units). These institutions and units have their own audiences and goals for communication that did not always align with the central communication functions of the larger organisation. Communication practitioners working at this meso level might face a double loyalty in terms of a conflict of interest. She wondered if this was an international trend.

From research conducted in Brazil, it was clear that many organisations offer activities in non-systematic ways because organisations often don’t have secure funding for long-term planning. Because of these shortages, organisations relied on volunteers in lieu of science communication professionals. Almost no evaluation occurs in these programs. The different realities in terms of professionalization was summed up by the statement, “We have different Brazils in the same country.”

Practices across the developed and developing worlds

In terms of key differences between practices in the developed and developing worlds, one of the main ones was considered to be the important role of formal education in science communication practice in the developing world. The values of education were considered to be very important and relevant in the developing world context.

Practitioners from developing countries also indicated that they were focussed much more on the immediate needs of communities such as hygiene, clean water, and access to energy. The philosophy behind the Europe’s Responsible Conduct of Research agenda was considered to be already embedded in the science communication practices of developing countries because of the importance of these pressing needs. Participants from developing countries reported that they couldn’t afford to work on issues that were not immediately relevant for the community. Yet participants also emphasised that the inspirational and cultural value of science – the need to be able to look ahead–was also important for all countries consider. One of the key advantages of practicing science communication in developing countries was considered to be the strong connection with communities on the ground.


Weingart, P. & Guenther, L. 2016. Science communication and the issue of trust. Journal of Science Communication. 15(5):C01.

Medvecky, F. & Leach, J. 2017. The ethics of science communication. Journal of Science Communication. 16(4):E1-5.