Making Science Reader Friendly

PRIM&R invited members of our Emerging Professionals Working Group (EPWG) to write about topics of relevance to their work and to the research ethics community. We hope these posts open conversations among research ethics oversight professionals at all points in their careers.

When science and research are communicated effectively, the research enterprise thrives. How the research enterprise and scientific advances are presented to the public has a tremendous impact on  promoting public understanding and making science more accessible, especially to groups that may not have had access to science or science education before.

Public perception impacts all aspects of research, including subject participation, funding, job opportunities, collaboration, and policies, so effective scientific communication should be considered as part of the research process. But, effectively translating scientific findings into lay language for the general public is easier said than done. Outlined below are three major themes to help.

Keep it simple: First and foremost, it is important to identify the audience for any communication piece and tailor the language and presentation accordingly. For example, a scientific abstract may be a great communication tool for a researcher to use with their peers, but an interactive video may be the best option for a group of high school students. Another effective tool—which many use during live talks (and even webinars) to gauge the audience’s baseline understanding of a topic—is to incorporate a poll or an interactive quiz into the presentation. For example, a genetics lecturer could simply ask the audience to raise their hand if they know what an “allele” is. Using this tactic helps presenters get an idea of what terms and background information they should provide to the audience before getting into the more complex details of their talk, thus ensuring their audience has the information they need to understand the entirety of the presentation.

When presenting research and research findings to a general audience, it is best to keep the “big picture” in mind. Why is this research important and why does it matter (or why should it matter) to them? It is important to remember that public audiences aren’t immersed in the technical/scientific world every day, so avoiding or at least defining technical words will help the audience better understand the content. For example, defining “genes” as “the part of cells that contain the instructions which tell our bodies how to grow and work, and determine physical characteristics such as hair and eye color” early in a communication piece that will be discussing genes will give the audience a better background so they can be more engaged throughout.

Engage with Social Media: Popular social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have become key platforms for sharing and seeking information. These platforms allow for information to be presented in interactive ways such as live chats, videos, and photos. Utilizing social media outlets to communicate research information can help break down boundaries between researchers and the public, as these platforms invite more dialogue. This enables researchers to gain insight into public perception of research as well as ethical and social issues that may be of concern.

Having a presence on social media also enables researchers to challenge, correct, and/or be part of the conversation when it comes to questionable reporting of research findings. We all know how stories go viral on social media, so having an active presence can help ensure that the items that go viral are ones that are accurate and promote public understanding of research.

Practice: As with anything, practice makes perfect. Fortunately, many recognize the importance of effective communication skills and many training programs and courses are available to help individuals strengthen these skills. Another way to improve communication skills is to request feedback. After a lecture, having the audience complete a simple survey asking “what did you enjoy about the presentation?” and “what could be improved?” can help researchers identify areas where they can improve for future communication pieces.

Planning your outreach around your intended audience—including a concerted effort to understand what knowledge your audience has of an issue and what might motivate them—facilitates scientific communication that is effective and engaging. And effective scientific communication that engages and educates the audience can help the public better understand science and research and make informed decisions, which in turn supports the entire research enterprise

Molly Schleicher, MNSP is a Review Specialist in the Office of Research Subject Protection at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA and a member of the PRIM&R Emerging Professionals Working Group.