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Research Project: The State of Science Communication Training at Canadian Universities

Many enthusiastic scientists and educators at Canadian universities are on a mission to bridge the gap between their complex work and the wider public. Many scientists are storytellers, sharing their discoveries in a language non-experts can understand.

Does the average scientist-in-training receive science communication (SciComm) as part of their education? This is what I sought through my Master's research.

In 2019, I pursued a research project to explore the landscape of  SciComm training for graduate students in Canadian universities under the supervision of Dr. Chantal Barriault at Laurentian University. I wanted to paint a "big picture" of how graduate students are being trained to effectively share science with folks outside their field. 

How I did it:

I created a survey that survey captured 46 SciComm training opportunities across 16 Canadian universities. These opportunities included 18 graduate-level courses, 7 conferences, 14 workshops, and 7 “other” training opportunities.

 

I asked each survey participant to "check off" which skills were taught for the training opportunity they listed. I based the framework of essential science communication skills on Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Louise Kuchel's 2017 study. The list of skills was validated by experts as extremely applicable and essential in training scientists-in-training to communicate to non-scientific audiences.

Here's what universities did well:

The top 5 skills covered in most SciComm training opportunities provide a strong beginner foundation for graduate students. In over 70% of training opportunities, graduate students were taught to: 

  • Identify their target audience

  • Consider the audience's prior knowledge

  • Use language relevant to the audience

  • Identify the purpose of the communication

  • Select an appropriate platform

 

Here's what universities could do better:

Incorporate SciComm theories in training:

  • The skill taught in the lowest proportion (25%) was “Understanding the underlying theories leading to the development of science communication and why it is important.” This is not surprising given that this requires background knowledge and research on behalf of the instructor. Many instructors delivering these trainings are likely trained in science (i.e. professors who have a Ph.D. in their field) but have no formal training in science communication (Treise and Weigold 2002). 

  • If these opportunities are not grounded in theory, research suggests they can do more harm than good (Peter & Koch, 2015). Science communication is often seen as a hobby, done out of personal interest or career development (Cooke et al., 2017). Akin to volunteering, it is sometimes seen as a moral obligation rather than an essential skill for a scientist (Poliakoff & Webb, 2007). Teaching science communication as a field grounded in evidence (rather than a hobby) may help overcome implementation barriers (Mercer-Mapstone & Kuchel, 2017).

Discuss social, political, and cultural context

  • The skill of “Considering the social, political, and cultural context of the scientific information” was second-last, taught in only 39% of opportunities. This points to a critical gap in graduate-level science training cultural context.

  • Science is often seen as “apolitical” and “objective.” However, scientific research does not exist in a vacuum. As mentioned above, the backfire effect and public misconceptions about science can have devastating public health and environmental impacts (Peter & Koch, 2015). Science has been used to further/promote racist and colonialist ideas, causing harm to vulnerable communities who have been harmed or left behind by science and medicine (Skloot, 2017). Research should always be put into context. Central to science communication is knowing the audience and creating content that meets their values and priorities. This cannot be done without considering the social, cultural, and political context. This is a clear area in need of improvement across the board in science communication training. Not only is it necessary, but there is exciting potential to frame science concepts in popular culture. Scientific discoveries are frequently explored in film and science fiction, providing an exciting opportunity to get the public engaged in research dissemination (Reinsborugh, 2017).

  • Lack of attention to social context may contribute to public misconceptions and hinder effective science communication.

 

My evidence-based recommendations for universities:

  • I recommend a diverse range of science communication training opportunities for graduate students to develop a strong foundation in SciComm. If one opportunity can't cover all the necessary skills, a diversity of opportunities ca

  • To bridge the gap in expertise in the area of SciComm theory and cultural context, we recommend bringing in trained science communicators, collaborating with outreach organizations, and training faculty in science communication.

Limitations of my study:

  • Low response rate due to the study's summer timing and COVID-19 restrictions.

  • The study relied on participants' responses, potentially missing some training opportunities. 

  • Lack of graduate student perspectives and nuanced details about the accessibility and workload of training opportunities. For example, are these training opportunities "on paper" but a typical graduate student may not have the time or resources to pursue them? 

 

Future Directions:

  • Expand the study pool and diversify methodologies to capture nuances in training opportunities.

  • Conduct interviews with graduate students to understand their perspectives on science communication training.

  • Analyze course syllabi to gain insights into themes taught in science communication across Canada.

  • Integrate findings from concurrent studies at Laurentian University for a comprehensive exploration of science communication skill distribution at various educational stages.

If you're interested in working with me or learning more about this study, send me an email at sciencewithive@gmail.com.

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