The world needs skilled science communicators now more than ever.
With the onslaught of scientific advances each day, whether it’s about the discovery of DNA bases in meteorites or piecing together what dinosaurs truly looked like, communicating these stories effectively is vital for nurturing the public’s scientific literacy and appreciation.
But it can be a challenge if the science is riddled with jargon.
Science communication was coined as a practice to help scientists to share their findings with their desired target audience. Like a translation service, the goal is to ensure the message is clear from Point A to Point B. Often, this means distilling the appropriate information, as well as developing new, accurate interpretations.
It’s a craft in and of itself. And there are many ways to practise as a science communicator.
Let’s dive deeper into this exciting field. 👇
What is a science communicator?
Science communicators are, broadly speaking, skilled scientific storytellers. They utilise their high level of scientific literacy to communicate concepts in formats which are:
and appealing to a desired demographic.
In most cases, the desired demographic a.k.a. target audience consists of non-experts in the general public who want or need to be informed about science.
And as the word communication itself suggests, the flow of information goes two ways.
Science communicators ensure that the conversation between scientists, themselves and the audience is less akin to a lecture, but rather geared towards a discussion: a two-way conversation! In doing so, science communicators promote awe and curiosity while encouraging the audience to contribute their own questions, concerns or ideas using their newly acquired knowledge.
You’ve likely met one before: your local GP!
When you walk in for an appointment, your goal is to receive well-communicated advice on how to address your medical needs. Your doctor, whom is a skilled science communicator, informs you about the basis of your medical issues, what you need to know, and how to address your problems.
With every visit, you can walk out feeling empowered just with the relevant knowledge that you need.
Where do science communicators work?
Science communicators are found across all walks of life. Wherever there is a need to disseminate science, you will find enthusiastic communicators.
And while it is possible to build a career solely on science communication, the title itself is not restricted to any single profession. In fact, you can find science communicators working as:
writers and editors
teachers and educators
museum staff and curators
media and public relations officers
policy advisors and corporate decision-makers
researchers in academia or industry
And the list goes on.
Why are science communicators so important?
With millions of papers being published every single year (of which a large chunk are locked behind paywalls), there’s a tall barrier between what’s accessible to the public and what’s not.
And even if they did pay a hefty sum for a scientific article, the chances are that the average person wouldn’t be able to digest the jargon.
By serving as an intermediary, science communicators are in pursuit of:
Informing and engaging the public
Facing the future, whether it’s about climate change or saving our most endangered species, needs full cooperation with the public. And it’s the public who actually funds most basic science. But for them to get their money’s worth, they’ll need some help with understanding what goes on behind the lab bench. Science communicators do exactly this through outreach to promote public awareness.
Though, simply putting more information out there isn’t going to do the trick for engaging the public. The information deficit model (otherwise known as the science literacy deficit model), which hoped to fill in the public’s gaps in scientific understanding by simply increasing the availability of knowledge, has terribly failed. Instead, efforts in the science communication space should now focus on improving how information is conveyed from experts to non-expert audiences. That’s where proper storytelling and having a two-way conversation with the audience drives accessibility.
Chucking misinformation out, and putting good science in
We’ve seen what information has done in the age of the pandemic, owed no less to mainstream media and social outlets. Social media in particular has been a breeding ground for conspiracies of the darkest nature (managed by so-called experts from the University of Facebook).
But at the same time, these digital platforms are also the perfect vehicle for communicating accurate, peer-reviewed science.
Driving change in our society with evidence-based knowledge
Science communicators bring all kinds of deeply buried science to light in hopes that they reach those in power (i.e. government) who can use evidence-based knowledge to make a difference.
Scientific knowledge is great, but it’s often not served on a silver platter to policy makers. Or at all, for that matter. Science communicators are responsible for igniting change by communicating knowledge in ways that are highly visible, can spark discussion, and can encourage action.
How do you become a science communicator?
Many often pop the question:
“Do I need a specific degree in order to become a science communicator?”
The short answer is no, it’s not a dealbreaker.
In fact, many practise science communication outside their profession by producing content or by volunteering for events promoting science.
Though a degree can most certainly help if you want to build your career in the field. A large number of science communicators possess university level STEM qualifications including, but not limited to a BSc, MSc or PhD in a given scientific discipline. And of these people, the ones most drawn to science communication are often those with research experience who understand the world of academia first-hand. Sometimes it takes a scientist to know what science needs.
And because of that, insider knowledge can help immensely.
Those trained in science who then become full-time science communicators often pick up skills in journalism and visual media (for example) on the job, or hone their skills in their own time.
Although rarer, science communicators can also come from non-scientific backgrounds and specialise into science afterwards.
What tools do science communicators make use of?
Science communicators need the right tools to express their skills.
And the greatest and most powerful of these skills is, without a doubt, the ability to write.
Writing accurately. Writing emotionally. Writing vividly.
Writing for science
Science communicators, as mentioned earlier, are skilled storytellers whose mission is to relay the wonders of science to a broader audience. And while most people can write in their first language, only a fraction are able to do it in ways that flow like a story.
As such, many science communicators become skilled at:
Likewise, their high command of language gives them an edge in:
narration for videos
But while words can tell a story, pictures can paint a story. 👇
Visual media for science
On account of an overused phrase, allow me to present it here:
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
And if a picture is worth a thousand, perhaps an animation is worth ten-thousand!
Skilled science communicators are encouraged to hone their skills in visual media as an additional medium for communicating scientific concepts in an appealing way. Often, this involves learning new kinds of software. The skills they can derive from this include but are not limited to:
And to an extent, these skills can help to supplement the above:
Our digital age of social media and smart devices demands a visual representation of science. Gone are the days when textbooks were the primary medium for learning about the universe. Nowadays, we have the convenience of YouTube channels like Kurzgesagt!
So, what do science communicators do at Animate Your Science?
Well, look no further than our company’s namesake.
We empower scientists to change the world by communicating in an effective and accessible way. We’ve found that animation serves as one of the most captivating ways to tell a story, consisting of:
a captivating story and voiced narration
a well-structured composition of scenes
vivid artwork, sound, and music concocted by our skilled art team
We’ve shown that animations in the form of video abstracts and explainer videos have immense storytelling power. Video abstracts in particular even serve as a kind of “movie trailer" for research studies which greatly attract the attention of the media.
Though there are definitely a wide range of ways to tell a great story.
As part of a team of PhD-trained science communicators, we know all too well what researchers think of scientific posters. In fact, we even surveyed them on this, and look at what we found.
Busy. Overloaded. Boring.
Three words that should never dare to stain science’s good name, and yet even researchers find themselves agreeing that posters are in dire need of a revamp.
Our science communicators are trained in graphic design to teach researchers about proper design principles. From consistent colour schemes through to the use of negative space (yes it’s good to have blank spots on your layout!), we’re steering away from the age-long poster tradition and are travelling towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
We’ve even made an entire course about poster design. Check. It. Out.
Other visual media
Of course, as advocates for visuals for communicating science, we also promote other avenues for doing so, including:
graphical abstracts (the baby version of a scientific poster)
custom-designed graphics to meet the individual needs of every scientist.
And on a daily basis…
You’ll find us:
having conversations with clients from academic and industry backgrounds to discuss their unique projects
reading scientific papers to create scripts for video abstracts
directing the scientific focus of our videos and illustrations
developing online courses focusing on good SciComm practice
running SciComm workshops at universities and government agencies
joining conversations on Twitter about #science
and of course, writing blogs just like this one for you!
(… and also going to great pizza restaurants. A science communicator needs fuel to get the creative juices flowing after all! 🍕)
Looking to build your toolkit as a science communicator?
Here’s what we recommend that you do.
Hone your layman writing skills. Start your own science blog - it’s free!
Increase your social media presence. Follow all things #scicomm!
Volunteer at science outreach events. Check out Pint of Science and similar events!
Immerse yourself in all kinds of science. There are biologists who think lasers are cool!
Choose your preferred kind of visual media and train yourself in it. There are plenty of online courses out there.
Join us in our mission to give science to the people.
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin
Dr Tullio Rossi
[If you are an Australian reader, consider joining the Australian Science Communicators to learn more about this exciting space!]