Helping science succeed
Helping science succeed

Why some scientists communicate better than others

As more attention is paid to the important role of communication between scientists and society, evaluations of how and why that communication occurs are becoming ever more complex and detailed. In his recent research paper (“Toward a Model of Scientists’ Public Communication Activity: The Case of Biomedical Researchers,”), Dr. Anthony Dudo, an associate professor in the Advertising and Public Relations Department at the University of Texas Austin, delves deeply into the “why” question to determine what factors — internal and external — contribute to a scientists’ drive to communicate findings and ideas to the public. After identifying these factors, Dudo applies the latest communications models  to help understand the data in a pragmatic way.

To get at the heart of his question, Dr. Dudo recruited a large pool of epidemiologists and stem cell researchers working in the U.S, and provided them with a survey. By focusing on biomedical researchers, Dudo not only was able isolate out any cultural differences between fields, but was also able to work with a group of scientists whose subject matter would be of considerable interest to the public. Looking at measures from basic descriptions like gender and professional status, to more nuanced measures such as attitude and perception of rewards, he constructed a quantified measure of relationships between the population’s attributes and their communication activities.

Based on his findings, the predominant “exogenous” factors that encourage more active public communication were higher status in their departments and greater autonomy from their departments to communicate freely with the public. Other important factors included a positive attitude towards communication and better communication training and ability. In other words, the scientists who were most able to communicate with the public — those who were good at it and were positive about it — tended to be the people who communicated more. Interestingly, responses to questions about positive rewards or negative consequences didn’t emerge as significant factors, suggesting that the most active communicators didn’t think too much about a cost/benefit analysis of their communication activities.

These findings should be encouraging to those concerned about the future of scientific communications, as they generally suggest that providing communications tools, training and access, and empowering and encouraging scientists to speak for themselves, could go a long way toward fostering a more dynamic and active dialogue between researchers and the public.

David Sloan

David Sloan has a doctorate in neuroscience and a background in systems neuroscience. He is currently a project manager for Discern Consulting in Baltimore and is leading SCI’s nationwide communications survey of researchers and scientists.