Computer Science University

Maintaining a Population of People in the Science Community is Vitally Important. What are the Problems and Solutions to Communicating Breakthroughs Effectively with a Non-Academic Audience?

If we hope to maintain the current rate of advancements in science or even increase it, we need to engage an audience such that we can ‘get them hooked’.  So writing this article is a great opportunity to increase interest in technological sciences and so it’s important to get it right.

As we are all quickly learning (especially from HACS), the view of science that one might have before entering the community is very different to that of one after doing so.  The resultant problem is that a journalist (who is in the community) will not be in agreement with his/her editor about whether a story is appropriate to an audience [1].  The problem is further amplified when trying to communicate research in an everyday publication such as a common newspaper, where there are many alternative news sources for the reader.  In this case, the editor wants only to publish articles that will engage a large proportion of reads and so is more likely to choose a piece with a ‘wow’ factor – something very unexpected by the reader.  Dubas and Martel (1973) researched this area and their results are not promising for the communication of science in common news sources – they found that editors from city news papers were not interested in science articles and instead favored those that looked at conflict stories and those that would instantly engage readers [2].

Similar problems occur in televised science communication.  It is common knowledge that the increased involvement we feel during conversation results in better retention of facts than when we are been lectured.  Transmitting science in this format is difficult though.  Whilst researching this, I came across an article by Rich McManus [3] which discusses how Actor Alan Alda is now working on methods of communicating science.  Alda says one of the problems is that you cannot turn scientists into actors, so it’s difficult to get them to communicate what they know in an interesting way.

Alda does have an alternative idea though, which he used when attempting to promote science himself.  Rather than the traditional lecture/documentary style he interviewed scientists on their area, under the belief that ‘when people are relating, you can’t take your eyes off of them’ and that ‘we instinctively want to understand the connection’.  He says he would ‘…ask and listen until I understood’[3].

Whilst writing this article, Professor Brian Cox (‘The Celebrity Scientist”) keeps coming to mind as a counter-argument to everything I’ve written here.  Cox’s method is to take the City News Editors’ approach – to only create shows that will amaze people and generate a captive audience.  I thought quite deeply about this and concluded it was a result of the content. Similarities can be drawn between what his shows and, say, Brainiac. Both are designed to increase a public interest in science, not to pass on the latest discoveries.


[1] The science writing inner club: A communication link between science and the lay public.  Science, Technology, & Human Values 5:14-22.

[2] Secondary Reference – Weigold, M. F. (2001). Communicating Science A Review of the Literature.Science Communication23(2), 164-193.

[3] Rich McManus. (2011, Apr.) nih record. [Online].