When the documentary film “Seaspiracy” launched on Netflix in 2021, it quickly generated controversy within scientific communities and among the public at large. Some praised the film documenting human impacts on marine life for highlighting issues within the fishing industry through a narrative lens. Others questioned Seaspiracy’s conspiratorial tone, and some scientists felt that the issues were oversimplified and misrepresented.
This high-profile example illustrates a universal challenge: How can scientists communicate better with the general public, and why should it be a priority? In Fall 2021, a group of graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego met to tackle these questions in a new course, “Communicating Environmental Science,” led by biogeochemistry professor Julia Diaz.
The scientific process does not easily accommodate people outside academia. Within the academic community, scientists are responsible for collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and publishing these findings in scholarly journals – the output often hidden behind steep paywalls and written in inaccessible jargon. Part of the reason for this isolation is necessity; new findings must be vetted and debated extensively within the broader scientific community before the knowledge can be openly shared.
But this approach can lead to misunderstanding and mistrust when the general public is excluded. This situation is problematic because the majority of science is funded by the public. Scientists have a professional obligation to translate their research into accessible formats for the public so that everyone can benefit. At its best, science has the power to uphold our societal values and help us better meet our collective needs by shaping the way we engage with our world and how we understand our position in it. We can achieve these ideals through effective science communication.
As individual scientists seeking to improve our conversations with the general public, we can learn from the most transformational science communicators – including Silent Spring author Rachel Carson and television ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. Their work gained mass popularity because they shared stories, not just facts, and they appealed to our universal values. We all share a love for stories and interconnection, a curiosity for exploration, the desire to protect ourselves from harm, and an appreciation for innovative solutions to our problems. Simply presenting the public with scientific facts without considering these shared values is not enough to promote engagement.
In our science communication class, we spent a lot of time envisioning our own science through the lens of these universal values in order to create a Strategic Framing Model, or SFM. The purpose of an SFM is to share scientific knowledge and motivate public engagement by promoting positive feelings. Any scientist can build an SFM for their research by answering these questions:
- “Why care?” by connecting their science to universal values
- “What has been learned?” by explaining their science using explanatory metaphors and analogies in a story
- “How does this affect daily life?” by suggesting tangible actions that are relevant to the values motivating the research and its impact.
Some values, however, are not as easily shared. The general public values certainty and consistency and may feel let down as scientific knowledge evolves, but this change is a normal and a healthy part of the scientific method. Everyone implements some version of the scientific method every day without even realizing it. Say you decide to start making your own homemade bread. You scour the web for recipes, try, fail, repeat and adapt your methods. You are using the exact same systematic thinking that we scientists in lab coats are applying to address the technical mysteries of our world. In the same way that your knowledge about bread constantly changes as you make new observations and learn, so too does scientific knowledge. As scientists, our highest value is the pursuit of truth. We must exercise skepticism, consider the latest data, and sometimes revise our position in order to find the truth, which should not be misconstrued as inconsistent or misleading behavior. Recognizing and bridging potential value gaps like these may help foster more trust between scientists and the general public.
In addition, we scientists can also improve our communication with the general public and among other scientists by paying attention to specific and measurable elements of style. For example, using jargon and acronyms excludes and confuses general audiences. We can incorporate first person and proper punctuation – like this – to clarify our message.
Finally, scientists need to keep the main points short. Utilizing these and other good communication techniques may make our work more accessible to diverse audiences. As scientists, we should trust our knowledge and lean into sharing our perspectives. We can use the confidence we have in our training and the enthusiasm that fuels our interests to engage in open-minded discussions. Importantly we must avoid being pedantic or condescending. We need to remember what it is like to be new to a topic while sharing our expertise. Empathy and kindness can feed a spark of interest leading to thoughtful questions and an open mind, whereas impatience and presumed ignorance can snuff out the flame. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn a new perspective.
Improving our communication as scientists not only involves individual action but broader structural changes. Universities should foster opportunities for students to practice effective communication as they pursue their degrees. Offering classes on public speaking, scientific writing, grant proposal writing, and engaging with informal audiences is a good first step. Making these courses a degree requirement would ensure that graduate students are trained appropriately for a diversity of career paths. At Scripps Oceanography many opportunities already exist for learning about science communication through student-led outreach organizations, the Scripps Communications Office, and class offerings. These resources should be structurally integrated into curricula to guarantee support for student participation. Furthermore, funding organizations should expand training and reporting requirements to support scientific communication. In the same way that the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health require training in the Responsible Conduct of Research for all funded scientists, they could implement a Responsible Communication of Science training mandate.
Hopefully today’s scientists see the importance of engaging with the public and driving structural changes that will amplify the positive feedback of science communication. Scientists don’t always have to engage on the scale of a popular Netflix documentary; sometimes, a simple metaphor that helps translate research to a small network of family and friends can be enough. Let’s all lean into seeking feedback with our conversations and be willing to consider the viewpoints and concerns of non-scientists and scientists alike – we must work with the broader community to achieve these goals. To the general public: please continue asking questions and remaining curious. And please, don’t shy away from expecting more from the scientific community – we are all responsible for carrying out productive scientific dialogue.
Authors Dante Capone, Emelia J Chamberlain, Kaitlin E Creamer, Dulce Guillén Matus, Sydney Plummer, Sarah L Romero, Sabrina L Ufer, and H. Zoe Yin were participants in Communicating Environmental Science, taught by professor Julia Diaz in Fall 2021.
The authors acknowledge the contributions of our classmates Hannah Adams, Michael Allen, Marnie Bryant, Carolina Carpenter, Austin Carter, Mitchell Chandler, Kelli Mullane, Monica Nelson, Minerva Padilla Villa, Sonya Timko, and Teddy Vincent.
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.