Helping science succeed
Helping science succeed

What is science communication?

Seeing the big picture

The field of science communication doesn’t have any single, broadly accepted definition. This is because science communication is actually a collection of many different fields that have science as a common thread, the same way the life sciences—covering everything from biology to botany, ecology, genetics, physiology, virology and zoology— are a huge variety of disciplines that have the study of living organisms in common.

Just as in the life sciences, this dispersion and separation has created barriers over time and limited our understanding of how all these different fields are related. Each fragment of science communication has developed its own intellectual roots, its own members and specialists, and its own fiscal and government sponsors. We don’t see our different fields as being united (we don’t even see which fields to unite), and we don’t work together across boundaries to improve science communication and improve what we can accomplish with science communication.

Instead, we research and work in silos. You will find science communication courses and funding tracks coalesced around narrow and high profile goals like improving the writing skills of scientists, for example, or providing media training to scientists so they can relay their work more effectively to policymakers and the public. Adding to our myopia, these tracks portray science communication as persuasion—as some combination of writing, marketing, multimedia and outreach that helps explain science to the nonscientist public.

Science communication is much more than this, though. Simply looking at what goes on inside science gives you some clues to its breadth. Overall, there are at least two general types of science communication: the type that helps scientists explain their work to others, and the type that helps scientists do their work more effectively. Both types are vitally important, but it’s the former that gets the most attention. We call this the “understanding” category of science communication, and it includes specializations like science writing, STEM education, science marketing and public policy advocacy. We can call the second type of science communication—the internally-focused type—the “discovery” category of science communication. In this category, we find specializations serving needs like improving research collaboration, informatics, study design, and tech transfer. 

Recognizing the true breadth of this discipline combined with the fact we’re only focusing on a narrow band of it means two things for the science communication community: (1) We are missing huge swaths of action and engagement in our current efforts to improve science communication, and (2) Our science communication efforts have vast untapped potential. Science communication specialists who work inside science on the discovery side of science communication have for the most part not been aware of or applied best practices that have been learned on the vastly more developed understanding side. Connecting both sides and applying lessons of experience across boundaries has enormous potential to improve science, and can also lead to faster discovery, better public policy, and more benefit for science and society.

A few examples of understanding and discovery types of science communication are listed in the tables below. These listings are only illustrative, not exhaustive: Many specializations aren’t included, and there is also overlap between and within categories and listings. 


Discipline Examples of specializations
  • Scholarly journal reform experts who focus on any one of a myriad of important issues (like improving access, improving reusability, improving peer review, replacing the impact factor, reducing fraud, and more). Journals are the single most important way that researchers in academia communicate. Improving this process is a key to improving the future of science communication inside research.
  • Experts who focus on database improvements (FAIR data, data curation, data standards, etc.). While this may technically seem like a numbers thing and not a communication thing, numbers are communication in research. How we deal with data—whether we just put it in a big pile for others to hopefully sort through someday, or whether we make data useable and useful today—is a key challenge in science communication.
  • Experts who are working to improving interdisciplinary connections and practices for communicating between disciplines
  • Statisticians, data architects and data analysis experts are key players in the science communication ecosystem, responsible for helping researchers make sense of their data. Without this capacity, science communication would be a three-legged table. There is often a huge storytelling and visual communication component to informatics work that is very much a part of effective science communication.
  • Scholarly journal editors are the gatekeepers of research, responsible for deciding what gets seen, what this work looks and reads like. These editors are also responsible for flagging fraud and for keeping garbage out of the science communication mainstream (even though fraud and garbage still find their way in through copious additional channels).
  • Specialists who communicate research findings to the press and public
  • Policy writers (see policy section)
  • People who focus on trying to improve connections with other researchers in the same field and even between fields
  • Managing conferences, conferences presentations, posters, and summaries
  • Designing and managing study enrollment efforts and outreach materials
  • Study selection (understanding what to study and fund)
Tech transfer
  • Unique mixes of science, business, marketing and communication expertise to move research out of academia


Overlap examples

Discipline Examples of specializations
Science marketing
  • Marketers who know how to conduct better outreach in the unique environment of science (which is totally different than marketing in the non-science world). These experts can create more effective, timely, and cross-disciplinary collaboration inside science. Better outreach is also useful for needs like reporting to donors and raising more funds for research. In addition, better marketing communication can help power more successful tech transfer initiatives, improve patient enrollment in studies, and more.
Science writing
  • Effective science writers are part of everything in science communication
  • In academia, science writing is directed mostly toward journals. Journal writing style is often so dense that it is unintelligible, even to other scientists. There are pros and cons to reform. Even though writing is key to both the discovery and understanding categories, it’s a wholly different kind of writing in each category with different concerns and audiences.


Discipline Examples of specializations
Science marketing
  • Specialists who understand science marketing are critical for educating and influencing policymakers and the public, and also for inspiring more kids to get interested in science. Building and maintaining this excitement and inspiration in science helps all efforts in this category: making science courses and textbooks more entertaining, making sure teachers are properly trained and have the right kinds of support, building bridges between what we’re teaching and the real world, etc.
  • The specialists involved vary widely, including experts who can improve the ability of researchers to write and to be relatable, media trainers for scientists, designers who can develop easy-to-grasp content like infographics, video specialists who can produce short science explainers, and more.
Science writing
  • Effective science writing is a key component of effective science marketing. We’re not necessarily talking about English majors or journalists here, but researchers who have a knack for explaining their work, coupled with advanced training in doing so.
  • Scientists and their institutions rarely have the in-house expertise to do an adequate job of science writing. An institution’s press office is most often how research gets communicated the public. Newspaper journalists played a role in the past, and still do, but science journalism has withered considerably in recent years as newsrooms have struggled.
Science education
  • Obviously, how we teach our science educators is key, and there is an entire genre of expertise dedicated to this task, most of it ingrained with knowledge and best practices from science communication.
  • Beyond the classroom, science education also means kids getting familiar with and excited about science (see the marketing section) and having opportunities to engage in science (see SCI’s Science Clubs project).
  • Also beyond the classroom, educating the public is also vitally important, and there are specialists aplenty in this genre of science communication work. The benefits from this work go well beyond education. Science policy works better if the public understands and is inspired by science and discovery (see policy section), and a more STEM-literate workforce has economic benefits as well.
  • Other science communication specialists focus on resolving the equity issues that need to be confronted in this field—racial, geographic, and gender disparities in STEM opportunities and achievement that are rooted in STEM funding also STEM pedagogy.