Soapbox Science

Why We Need Science Communication

Emily Coren is a science illustrator in California. She has a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from UC-Santa Cruz that led to a position making transgenic butterflies at SUNY Buffalo. She graduated from the UC Santa Cruz Program in Science Illustration and drew bugs, plants and dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History and developed educational content for Walden Media in Los Angeles. Her goal as a science illustrator has always been to use popular media to make science accessible to people with non-science backgrounds.  Her current project for connecting is and she can be found on Twitter as @emilycoren.

I’ve attended several meetings this past year and when I talk with other science communicators, there are certain sources that keep coming up in conversation. I’d like to share with you some of the resources that describe and inform the theory and practice of science communication and have helped shape my perception of the work that I do.  I’m amazed at how new this information is to many of my peers in both science and science communication and I hope you will find the references as interesting and helpful as I did.

Why We Need Science Communication

  • The Public Understanding of Science, The Royal Society, London 1985.

A comprehensive treatise on why science communication is important to society. It makes recommendations for what we can do as a society to improve our understanding of, and engagement with, science. This is elegantly summarized in its own Preface:

“It deals with an issue that is important not only, or even mainly, for the scientific community but also for the nation as a whole and for each individual within it. More than ever, people need some understanding of science, whether they are involved in decision-making at a national or local level, in managing industrial companies, in skilled or semi-skilled employment, in voting as private citizens or in making a wide range of personal decisions. In publishing this report the Council hopes that it will highlight this need for an overall awareness of the nature of science and, more particularly, of the way that science and technology pervade modern life, and that it will generate both debate and decisions on how best they can be fostered.

Excellent! That’s certainly why I chose to become a science communicator, but it leaves me wondering:  “If that’s what we knew in 1985 in Britain, where are we now with science communication in the United States?” We’ll get to that…

A History of Science Communication

  • Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (revised edition), Dorothy Nelkin, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1995.

The history and practice of science writing in the nineteenth-century. Especially relevant is Chapter Six, which is a history of science communication:

“We’re in it because we love science and it is a job which you can keep learning more and more about science all the time”

“Science has made wonderful advances; of course we view it as positive.”

“We want to sell science.”

Chapter Ten discusses “imagery” but in this instance the “imagery” referred to is verbal imagery, not science art and illustrations, nor any of the constraints involved in producing science art. As we try to reach broader audiences in a multimedia landscape I think it’s important to be aware that science communication needs to start wherever your target audience already is and that, for many communities, writing alone is not enough.

The Study of Science Communication and Science Engagement

  • Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age: Implications for public engagement and popular media, R. Holliman et al. Oxford University Press, 2009.  

A fascinating British sociology textbook that was an eye-opener for me. This contemporary volume is an excellent introduction to the study of science communication. I loved learning that there was actual research showing what works and what doesn’t for science communication. The book also details those research methods that my colleagues are curious about, methods of sociology research. One of the main points of the book is how it stresses the importance of public engagement with science as opposed to the previous assumptions of the public understanding of science, moving our field from Deficit Model style to Engagement Style communication. Let’s use this text and others like it to start learning what works and what doesn’t in our content production.

Our Cultural Perceptions of Science and Virtual Witnessing Technologies

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists in Cinema, David Kirby, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2011.

This book concerns the National Academy of Sciences and Entertainment Exchange, a project that provides science advisers for Hollywood films. It talks about the experience of being a science adviser now and the effect the participating scientists have on our cultural perceptions of science. For example Jack Horner, the curator of the Museum of the Rockies, participated in the Exchange as the science adviser for Jurassic Park (1993), which forever changed our cultural perception of dinosaurs from slow, lumbering beasts into fast intelligent creatures with behavioral traits similar to modern birds. Also, by using films as virtual witnessing technologies we have the opportunity to reach broader audiences then ever before, “The concept of virtual witnessing captures the significance of visualization and representation in scientific practice and the notion that witnessing need not be direct to convince people that phenomena or events match natural law. Only two men walked on the moon in 1969, but every person on Earth had the chance to witness this event on television.”

The Science of Science Communication – Policy

  • The Science of Science Communication (May 21st-22nd 2012)

This answers our question from the beginning where we asked. “If that’s what we knew in 1985 in Britain, where are we now with science communication in the United States?” These videos from the Sackler Colloquia’s YouTube Channel give us a clearer picture of what’s going on now in science communication. I think they also give a fair insight into what the policy governing how we function as science communicators looks like. How great is it that this is free and accessible?! Really great. If you need the actual agenda, you can find it at the National Academy of Science’s website here.

In my opinion, these are the highlights:

I want to support the cultural integration of science, and create mechanisms to maintain an educated adult population because our technological knowledge is advancing more rapidly than the information is being assimilated culturally. The communication I see being produced is mostly by scientists for scientists; the information created for other audiences often has a bias or agenda. I would like to be moderating, through popular media, a societal discussion that provides both accurate representation of our current understanding of an issue and also represent the different cultural perspectives of that issue. Using interactive new-media tools and testing, we can moderate a societal discussion of an issue, where each group gets to be “heard” and represented through a character. I hope these sources are useful to you as they were to me.

Illustration by Maki Naro


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    Sarah Rosenberg said:

    This is a really important discussion to be having. As someone working in the public health communications field, I fully support increasing access to educational information to the public – and urge us to think even a step further toward addressing the disparities in education, and the vital importance of empowering those who are least privileged to receive quality education too, by means that meet them where they are. Bringing science education not only to media besides textbooks and journals but to popular culture, film, novels, and other creative means is a good step in this direction, I feel. It’s not enough to simply provide access, such as through expanding Internet access, but to guide the learning that can potentially happen in realistic and inclusive ways.

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