Communicating research to a broader audience

Research is all about increasing knowledge. Everyone should have access to that education. Unfortunately, research findings often remain trapped for years in academic circles. Science graduate programs train students to speak to other scientists, with manuscripts and talks usually targeted to professional audiences. Although this is critical for driving research programs forward, it does not allow the general public to access new research information. One reason for the breakdown in communication from academic science to the public is the lack of training in effective public engagement. During the past decade, scientific writing and presentation courses have been added to graduate curricula. Equal attention should be paid to fostering communication outside of academic circles. Most science training programs do not include opportunities for public engagement. Only with practice can scientists actually learn how to convey their research in a meaningful, interesting, clear and concise manner that is relevant to a general audience.

In the absence of established activities, students can work with their advisors to seek out opportunities to write for public audiences. This could include sharing research through school newsletters, blog posts, or social media. Professors can also integrate lessons focused on speaking or writing for the public into existing courses and seminars. Simple assignments could include writing lay abstracts and general research summaries or presenting brief public seminars about a specific research project. Students can work with mentors to develop a 1-minute elevator pitch of their research to clearly articulate the intention or impact of their work. Remember that storytelling and analogies are highly effective ways to communicate complex information. Keeping the message simple with 1-3 main teaching points will reduce the chances of getting lost behind your words. Colleagues from writing and communications departments can be invited to review and critique students’ written summaries or public presentations. Outreach activities will also provide students with unique opportunities to speak at middle schools or community events, which will improve skills in public communication.

Bridging this gap in communication positively impacts academia and the public. Educating a wider audience imparts deeper meaning and purpose to the everyday work of scientists and graduate students. Most importantly, improved access to research findings empowers the public to advocate for their needs. As an example, patients should be privy to research news that may help clarify treatment decisions. Receiving a medical diagnosis is frightening and confusing, often because of the unknowns. Education is one of the biggest weapons we have to combat those fears, ask informed questions, and be proactive about our own healthcare. The academic community has a responsibility to disseminate research to the public in a timely manner. Science graduate programs should prioritize building skills in public communication and engagement to facilitate broader access to research advances and education.