How to better communicate science

diversityScience communication helps people understand the implications of scientific work for society. Here, Maya Raghunandan, freelancer for online platform for freelance scientists Kolabtree, explains how engineers can improve the way science and engineering are communicated.

Scientific communication is part of an engineer’s day-to-day life. Advancements in the industry will shape the future of society and the economy, so it’s important engineers communicate their work effectively. The definition of science communication may seem straightforward, but current practices are far from perfect.

Science communication
To explain specific scientific details to a lay audience, scientists must use simple and succinct language, think of the bigger picture and reflect on the importance of their research for society.

The birth and spread of false information

In this age, a vast amount of information is at everyone’s fingertips. While each media platform offers unique ways to share science, there is the downside of prevalent misleading or false information.

Often, the media oversimplifies scientific information to make it suited for lay audiences. A popular practice, known as “infotainment”, focuses on describing new discoveries in an entertaining fashion. Frequently, to sensationalise engineering breakthroughs, journalists generalise facts to the point of being overreaching or worse — blatantly wrong.

Unfortunately, it is these sensational headlines that lend themselves beautifully to being widely circulated in the media. A study in Science found that fake news was 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true news.

In January 2018, an article was published claiming that a Chinese engineer contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD) after having intercourse with a sex robot prototype. Clues such as the name of the engineer — Phuck Yu Mang — hinted at the fact that the story was fabricated, but it was still a hot topic on Twitter at the time.

The root cause of poor communication

Engineers often use specific jargon laden with complex terminologies when describing their work. While peers in the same field can understand each other, this poses a serious obstacle when communicating to the wider public. The main reason for this failure to communicate effectively is that there is a huge gap between what engineers assume the public knows and what the public actually knows.

Tell a story

Engineers must pay close attention to the language they use. The art of storytelling has the ability to unify science, engineering and humanities. Some scientists excel at this: Olivia Ambrogio, Mitchell Waldrop and Megan Watzke, are great role models. Following the example set by scientists who do a good job of communicating science will help engineers develop their own communication style.

Participate in informal science outreach

Engaging in a narrative with broader strokes is a more effective way of getting people hooked and inspiring them to learn more. Engineers should illustrate what attracted them to their field of work and demonstrate how their particular field of engineering contributes to solving a real and tangible problem in the world.

During training, aspiring engineers should be exposed to opportunities that involve informal science outreach. In fact, integrating jargon-free science communication into a curriculum can go a long way towards bridging the divide between engineers and the lay public.

Zoom out

Engineers have such a profound understanding of their subject that it can be remarkably difficult for them to take a step back and assess what the public needs to know. In order to explain specific technical details to a lay audience, engineers must try to look at the bigger picture and reflect on the importance of their work and the implications it holds for the world.

Science communication can be a rough and time-consuming terrain for naive and inexperienced engineers. However, backed by guidance from expert science writers, novices can develop coherent and effective communication strategies that will help bridge the gap between engineers, journalists and the public.