The problem with science communication

Yesterday I was part of a very interesting workshop on Science in Society, in Auckland. There was a plethora of good examples of science communication discussed – including forest restoration on the East Coast, biological control of pests in vineyards in Canterbury and improvement of health outcomes for Native Americans in Montana. For me, it was clear that there were some resounding messages coming through about science communicaton. 

1. It needs to be driven by the community. Here, community could mean a town or village, a marae, an industry group, a school – any group of people with an interest in achieving something. The participation of the scientist is as a partner, often as a junior partner. In other words, the community takes the lead. The scientist(s) doesn't go out and say "Right, now I am going to do some science communication." If she does, no-one will listen. Instead, she needs to be listening and responsive to the (scientific) needs of others. 

2. Communication is about relationships. Richard  Faull gave a very humbling talk about his work on Huntington's Disease, done in partnership with several Maori families across the country for whom Huntington's is tragically real.  It is a true partnership. To achieve what he has done has taken decades of building relationships. Listening to people's stories, spending weeks on Maraes, being available Christmas Day for someone to offload their fears for the future.  

3. There is a difference between outputs and outcomes: It is easy(ish) to write journal articles about science communication projects. That's an output. An outcome is a lasting impact for the people concerned:

Communication isn't complete until it is put into practice for the people for whom it makes an impact  – Polly Atatoa-Carr

Now here's the problem for the scientist (i.e., me). We are all tasked to be science communicators. (Yes, we are – if you're a member of a professional organization you'll probably find it's part of your responsibilities as a member – and, if nothing else, it is your duty as a professional to talk about your profession.) But it isn't something we can do (as in "Right, I need to do some science communication in the next few months – what shall I do?") Soana Pamaka, of Tamaki College in Auckland, summed it up "Schools are sick and tired of being 'done to'." Instead, we need to build relationships with community groups and be open to respond to opportunities that arise. Almost certainly, those opportunities will not be in our specialist areas. I mean, how many community groups have an interest in neural field models? But if we have good relationships, then groups will come to us because they know us. And we have to respond to that. For example, at Tamaki College, which has a fantastic science programme, the science communication is driven by the school, which means the children, with guidance from teachers. The scientists work in partnership with them. 

Better science communication needs better relationships with communities, and be community-driven. The scientists need to be open to respond to those opportunities. How ironic then, for a workshop on 'Science in Society' nearly all participants were scientists or educators.



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