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A new guide offers advice for navigating barriers to successful science communication

Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement

Faith Kearns
Island Press
2021
280 pp.
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“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong,” argued Richard Feynman in 1964 (1). “It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is.” While this may indeed be true of a scientific theory, the effective communication of that theory to a broader audience is a bit more complicated. Building on such predecessors as The Craft of Science Writing and Escape from the Ivory Tower, in Getting to the Heart of Science Communication, Faith Kearns reminds readers that how a scientist presents his or her research can drastically affect how people outside of academia think, and especially how they feel, about a given topic (2, 3).

The book offers a view from the front lines of science communication, profiling practitioners who explain their journeys and share stories of relationship building and community engagement. Framing herself as a scientist turned science communicator, Kearns describe her vision for the future of the field, one in which relational communication is fundamental.

In Part I, Kearns describes the evolution of science communication, highlighting a 1951 Science article by William Hewitt (4) that established a road map for the future of scientific communication. Hewitt argued for creation of a field of science communicators who would be charged with organizing the rapidly expanding body of research to establish productive communication channels between scientists and the public. Kearns describes this vision as prescient while noting that contemporary discussions about science communication often overprioritize finding ways to encourage or incentivize senior scientists to communicate about their work.

Turning her attention to those who do pursue scientific communication as a career, Kearns notes that many such individuals are not in tenured positions and suggests that more infrastructure is needed to support this growing community. Institutions of higher education claim to value the role of public scholarship and engagement, she argues, and if that is the case, they should defend science communicators when they come under fire, just as they reap the rewards when communication efforts
are successful.

In the book’s second section, Kearns focuses on relational tools of communication, including how to listen, work through conflict, and understand trauma. She notes that in situations where emotions, conflict, and power are salient to communication, communicating effectively requires the cultivation of relationships and the use of tools such as listening and empathizing.

Kearns argues that, until recently, scientists had mostly taken an agnostic approach to the identity of the communicator. She explains why this is worth rethinking, demonstrating how factors such as race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, class, and power can influence who asks questions, what questions they ask, and who benefits from the information being disseminated.

The book closes with Kearns’s vision of what science communication can be, including how we can ensure that it is equitable, inclusive, and just and that communicators emphasize self-care and collective care. She encourages those who engage in this work to prioritize their emotional and physical selves and to incorporate practices such as establishing boundaries, taking time for reflection, and making space for joy.

Kearns correctly highlights that there remains a disconnect between doing science well and communicating science well. However, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with the realities that can undermine effective communication, including the tenure incentive structure and time constraints experienced by academic scientists.

It is possible that, as the science communication community grows, a plurality of communication efforts will need to be valued and incentivized, but it is worth making the effort to do so now. If these challenges can be addressed, and future scientists learn how to effectively communicate their work, it is more than the lay community that stands to benefit. Scientists themselves will gain valuable insights by engaging in conversations with the people and communities that they hope to help.

References and Notes:
1. Project Tuva: Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lecture Series (2009); www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/project/tuva-richard-feynman/.
2. S. Carpenter, Ed., The Craft of Science Writing: Selections from The Open Notebook (The Open Notebook, 2020).
3. N. Baron, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter (Island Press, 2010).
4. W. F. Hewitt Jr., Science 114, 134 (1951).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Education Reform and Department of Psychology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701, USA.