SciComm Advice: Start at the End (what are you trying to do?)

Girl drawing in a sketchbook with art supplies on table around her

I frequently get asked by students and faculty what kind of advice I have for a student interested in sharing science. Some of these students want careers as scicomm professionals. Others want to do scicomm as a scientist. And others still just know someone who is looking for advice. This post is written as direct-to-the-seeker advice.

Feel free to share it and chime in about the advice you share or have found most helpful — share in the comments or on Twitter!

As a starting point, I typically I recommend folks read “Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society” (link to paper). Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck’s paper is about about how to meld what they call research and impact identities. Reading this paper can help you orient you to…yourself.

This paper is relevant because there are two key components to effective, meaningful, and sustainable public engagement/outreach. They are: (a) what is meaningful and compelling to you, and (b) what is needed by the stakeholders you care about reaching.

When you have had some time to think about what you are driven by and who that could be meaningful to, you’re in a stronger position to start planning/proposing engagement activities.

Then, it depends a lot on what kind of stakeholders you want to reach. In the case of a student studying some aspect of aquatic ecology, you might ask: Are they anglers, fisheries managers, policy makers, private land owners, recreators, K-12 educators, or someone else entirely?

While it is tempting to say, “Science matters to everyone,” that’s not an effective or sustainable approach to public engagement. 🙂 Language, strategies, communication materials, etc., are most productive when they are tailored to the values and needs of specific stakeholder groups. 

Next, it is crucial to be crystal clear on how much time and resources you’ll have. Are you doing this project alone or with fellow students? Do your advisers have any (a) experience with this type of engagement or (b) interest in helping with it? Do they have existing relationships that you can build on to help you get started and increase the chances of the engagement being longer-term and thus more meaningful for the target stakeholders?

Keep in mind that your answers to all these questions can (and usually do) vary throughout the lifespan of (a) your career and (b) any given project. The important thing for sustainability and efficacy is to make some decisions to provide a reasonable scope for a project at any point along the way.

Location-specific advice

After you’ve considered the big picture questions, you may also want to consider where you are developing your engagement plan. I’m going to walk you through advice I give to students working in or wanting to share science in Wyoming, where I’m based. You can adapt the overarching framework of this advice to the specific resources, organizations, and considerations of your locale.

Here are some thoughts specific to public engagement in Wyoming:

If you’re not sure where to start, it’s best to avoid being a solution in search of a problem. 🙂

Ideally, that means you start by orienting yourself to who on campus is already doing public engagement in Wyoming. Check out the Biodiversity Institute’s programs, along with the Science Kitchen, Science Road Show, Science and Math Teaching Center, the Wyoming Science Fair, and the Women in STEM campus day, along with COPSE. Those are all potential avenues for learning more about effective public engagement in a Wyoming-specific context.

Doing this will help you understand what kinds of opportunities there might be to connect your research to existing efforts, and thereby avoid having to reinvent the wheel. 🙂

Leverage your mentors’ existing relationships within Wyoming to identify ways that you could contribute here. Leaning on that aquatics/fisheries student example: Does the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s fisheries team have anything going on that’s relevant to your research, or any needs you could meet, relating to public engagement? It’s best to have an open conversation rather than assuming that we have things they need from us. But, it can be quite productive to simply approach collaborators and partners and say, “I want to share my science outside academia. Would you be willing to chat with me about what you’re working on that does that and/or how I could do that in a way that supports what you already have going?”

Next steps & resources

Everything I’m telling you here is (a) best practices grounded in the science of science communication and (b) covered in the courses I regularly teach in Zoo/Phys and the Program in Ecology and Evolution (PiEE). The Haub School also offers a host of fantastic courses that teach students how to effectively work with stakeholders. Finally, starting in the fall, the UW Science Communication Initiative (WySCI) will start offering trainings again. You can get notifications about that by subscribing to our weekly updates on the WySCI website.

If you’re not a student based in Wyoming, it’s a great idea to look around for coursework across your campus that could help you cross-train and build/practice the skills you need. You might be consider courses in graphic design, journalism, public speaking, conflict resolution, project management, cultural studies, creative writing, pedagogy (teaching training) and more.

If you want to dig deeper into the whole framework of good practices in public engagement, here are two resources from my scicomm classes:

Science of Science Communication course syllabus

Applied Principles of Science Communication course bibliography

Canadian Science Publishing interviews me about creative ways of doing science communication and sharing science

I was invited to serve as the People’s Choice Judge for Canadian Science Publishing*’s 2021 Visualizing Science contest (which you can enter now!). In the course of launching the contest, CSP interviewed me about my take on creative approaches to visualizing science and doing science communication.

Here are the cliff notes:

  1. I came to a career scicomm in a round-about way, only to later discover I had been doing scicomm most of my career.
  2. My “creativity+scicomm” soap box centers around 3 principles: (1) Creativity can be practiced and enhanced. (2) Cross-training is essential. (3) Few innovations happen overnight or solo. 
  3. Despite the constraints and our conditioning in academia, we must ground our science communication and public engagement efforts in what our audience or target stakeholders value. “No amount of beautiful art or accessible color palette […] will salvage a visual communication effort that is developed in an echo chamber.”
Continue reading Canadian Science Publishing interviews me about creative ways of doing science communication and sharing science

Article: Using collages & surveys to understand public opinion about managing agricultural landscapes

Screenshot of article - displays two collages created by cutting out images of cows, chickens, pigs, trees, buildings, fields, and wind turbines.
Screenshot of article

I was fascinated and delighted to join a group of researchers who used art (collages made by community members) to better understand what citizens in the United Kingdom want agricultural landscapes to look like post-Brexit. The published article clarifies that Brits want to look at bucolic landscapes, but perceive renewable energy infrastructure as more environmentally friendly than livestock on the landscape.

I initially joined the research team to bring an arts perspective to the writing of the manuscript. As I dug in, I came to see the research approach as broadly useful. Here are a few excerpts from a UW press release about the study that effectively sum up my take:

I see it having a lot of relevance for us in Wyoming and North America broadly, as it uses a mixed-methods approach to better understand what citizens actually want to see on the landscape. We are deep into these kinds of discussions in Wyoming right now, so these kinds of public consultation studies can be valuable for us, too.

Continue reading Article: Using collages & surveys to understand public opinion about managing agricultural landscapes

IMPACT project receives UWyo Grand Challenges funding

Screenshot of press release linked to in main text of this blog post.
Screenshot of UWyo press release

The University of Wyoming’s Grand Challenges initiative recently announced the winners of the first round of funding from this major university initiative. I am delighted to report that a project I am leading was one of the five projects selected. This press release provides a brief overview of all five projects.

In short, our project is about enhancing transdisciplinary capacity at the university, because the problems of today (and the challenges of the future) cannot be solved by a single discipline. Through “IMPACT — Innovative Methods to develop Adaptive Capacity through Transdisciplinarity,” we aim to transform UW’s approach to research, and enhance public trust in research and information. We’re taking a cross-cutting, institutionally empowered, transdisciplinary approach in which science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, humanities and social sciences are equal partners.

Continue reading IMPACT project receives UWyo Grand Challenges funding

Article: In the space between: Public information officers in science

This invited article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment clarifies the role that public information officers play in modern science communication. It is essential reading for scientists looking to share their science and for science-trained folks considering moving from research into scicomm. The full article is available for free here.

Excerpt: “To some, the word “promotion” smacks of hype and spin. It’s certainly true that PIOs choose the most interesting and important stories to share, but we’re also keenly aware that our efficacy is contingent upon the trust of the communities we represent, the media, and citizens.

Science PIOs fill a space between scientists and journalists – and increasingly, between scientists and public audiences more directly. Rather than focusing deeply on one area of science, we are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for stories that will catch the attention of our audiences and showcase the accomplishments of our employers or clients. As a result, scientists collaborating with PIOs gain considerably from the PIO’s skillset, experience, and contacts. By working with a good PIO, a researcher can position their work to have real societal impact, far beyond what they could achieve alone.”

Full citation: Invited. Merkle, B.G., M. Downs, and A. Hettinger. 2019. In the space between: Public information officers in science. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 17(8): 474-475.