How open are we as science communicators?

Photo credit: Marten Newhall, Unsplash

Words: Andy Ridgway, originally published on UWE Science Communication Unit blog

When I started teaching science writing after spending years as a journalist, I wanted to share my experience, my way of doing things, in the classroom. But I quickly struck upon a problem. What did I actually do? How did I find and research stories? How did I choose interviewees? I had been doing all of these things for so long (and often at speed) that the process I followed had become automatic – not the stuff of conscious thought. It took a fair bit of reflection to unravel the processes that had become so hardwired so I could try to explain them in the classroom. When we are conducting research as science communicators, a lot of our decisions come down to who and what we trust. What sources can we rely on for fact and who can we rely on for opinion? In reality, faced with the pressures of time, as communicators we typically rely on a limited range of sources – the likes of peer reviewed papers, the scientists directly involved with the research (or at least someone in their field) and possibly the odd press release. But how many of us give conscious thought in our working day to what we trust and why? How often are we open to ideas, perspectives and knowledge that come from outside our usual circle
of trust?


It’s questions such as these that are at the heart of our the latest report .This report synthesised research we had already done to consider the ‘openness’ and ‘reflexivity’ of science communicators and also of citizens; those who read, watch or listen to what we create. How open are we to a wide range of information, ideas and perspectives? And how reflexive are we, consciously thinking about where we search for information, how that influences the information we find and then how choices we make influence what we write or create?


A guiding principle of RETHINK is that openness and reflexivity on the part of communicators, citizens, scientists and everyone else for that matter are a good thing – helping to create a more effective exchange of ideas and knowledge. On their own, all of these principles sound straightforward. Source information you can trust. Be open. Be reflexive. It’s just that when you put all those ideas together, things start to get complicated.


A survey of the working practices of science communicators we conducted earlier in RETHINK shows that academic journals, university press releases and personal contacts are consulted widely during research. After all, these are sources we can trust for the most part. But if this is what we always do as communicators, often without conscious thought (or reflexivity) it limits the opportunities for readers, viewers and listeners to be exposed to different information and perspectives. So it is in the implementation of these principles that things get challenging. How prepared are we as communicators to step outside our research comfort zone and take information from sources, from people, we wouldn’t usually consult? When would we want to do this? Are there circumstances when it’s more appropriate than others? After all, openness on the part of science communicators doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll simply report information and opinions from anyone. There’s a widely
circulated quote (that’s been attributed to several people) that may apply here: “Let us keep our minds open…but don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!”


Our new RETHINK report also explores how open and reflexive citizens are when they are interpreting information about science. Specifically, it looked at their ‘sensemaking practices’ in relation to coronavirus – sensemaking being the process by which we develop an understanding of something complex. It showed that there is some evidence of openness, with people consulting a range of newspapers and websites to help them triangulate information and understand what’s happening. But in many instances, citizens’ sensemaking practices are understandably heavily influenced by their context – they speak with friends, family, find information from online social media groups they’re part of and have a limited range of online sources they trust. They are also unlikely to shift from pre-existing beliefs during this sensemaking process. In other words, some sensemaking is not particularly open, or particularly reflexive for that matter.


So what we can do about all this? How can we as science communicators become open and reflexive in what we do in a way that’s compatible with the need to source trustworthy information? And is there anything we can do to encourage others, those who watch, listen or read what we create, to be open and reflexive too? Let’s have
an (open and reflexive) conversation about this – tweet us at @RETHINKscicomm @SciCommsUWE with your thoughts and ideas.

What motivates science communicators, how do they work and who are their audiences?

In the last months we have been working hard on some of the project’s research questions. Four reports were produced investigating how science communicators work, what motivates them, what incentivises them, how they interact with their audiences and even looking at the available training programmes on science communication.

Two reports were led by UWE Bristol and they looked on the one hand-side at the motivations for science communicators and on the other hand at the audiences for science communication. Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? Who do those who communicate science aim to reach when they produce their content and what barriers stand in the way of reaching these audiences? We try to answer these questions in the Report on the Working Practices, Motivations and Challenges of those Engaged in Science Communication and the one on the Links between science communication actors and between actors and their audiences. Another important aspect of the science communication landscape is the training on offer, we analysed the status quo and demands for science communication training, this work was lead by Zeppelin University.

VU looked into the motivations of scientists to engage with the public, online or offline. Why do they decide to engage with the public and what holds them back? The full report on Incentive and disincentive structures for R&I stakeholders to engage in science communication can be found here.

First RETHINK research outcome published

UWE Bristol Science Communication unit have led the substantial work on mapping the vast science communication terrain in 7 European countries (Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Serbia as well as the UK.). The focus was on online content from tweeting to vlogging and

given the terrain’s scale, we decided to set some boundaries to our exploration. Firstly, we decided to concentrate on three topic areas – climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets. These topics were selected because they are important to all our lives. But they also represent very different online habitats; with different individuals and organisations doing the communicating and very diverse subject matter.

So what did we find? Well, across the seven countries, 697 different individuals and organisations that communicate climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets were identified. Digging into the data in a little more detail provides some interesting insights, including:

  • Climate change has the widest range of individuals and organisations communicating about it online of the three topics. In other words, it has a particularly rich communication environment.
  • The online science communication landscape is complex – there are large differences in the types of communicators, the platforms used and content shared between science-related subjects.
  • With all three topics, many of the sources of information are not traditional experts, such as scientists or health practitioners. Nor are they traditional mediators of information, such as journalists. There are lots of alternative sources of information, such as non-professional communicators and support communities.

Want to find out more? The full report can be found here.