Deaths from a mass shooting event make it the worst in the nation this year—so far. An infectious disease long suppressed in the general population seems to be making a comeback. There is a multistate recall on produce due to food safety concerns after dozens of people were hospitalized.
It isn’t necessary to put names or dates or places on these events. They have become commonplace enough that at any given point in time, we can match these accounts to specific events that have occurred recently. It is against this backdrop that science communicators in the twenty-first century are doing their jobs, themselves working on emotional, contentious topics steeped in uncertainty and struggles for power. On top of that, those science communicators may have limited job protections, and most will not be in tenure-track positions.
This reality runs counter to the often-repeated idea that scientists must be incentivized to descend from their ivory towers to communicate with “the public.” Instead, many science communicators are themselves the public—they live in the communities where they work, face the same issues and threats as their neighbors, and need support and protection more than they need incentives so that they can do the work that is most useful to the people in those places.
Bearing Bad News, Again and Again
“I live in Charleston, and people’s feet are now getting wet,” says Sarah Watson. As a coastal climate and resilience specialist with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments, she works directly with communities to adapt to climate change. Watson is repeatedly in the position of being the bearer of bad news about how quickly increasing water levels are changing landscapes and lives.
“I recently had to give several presentations on the local effects of sea level rise to groups like planning commissions and homeowners’ associations. Each time, at least half the people there were completely freaked out. I myself now get nervous having to say out loud what these climate projections tell us about tidal flooding in the region,” Watson says. “It’s hard information for communities to hear for what is often the first time, and it’s hard for me to give the same bad news over and over again. News that I increasingly worry isn’t bad enough to cover where we’re headed but that I simultaneously worry sounds too alarmist for what people are ready to hear.”
Before her current job, Watson spent years as an environmental journalist in New Jersey, where she was faced with a hurricane evacuation for the first time. The storm did not end up hitting her area particularly hard, but it piqued Watson’s interest in climate adaptation. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the self-proclaimed science and weather nerd jumped to the disaster beat full-time.
Watson recalls scanning some of the forecasts the week before the storm hit, projections showing it had an odd path and appeared to be making a severe left turn, heading straight for the Jersey Shore. “As I started to look at those models, I got a deep sense of dread that didn’t go away for years.”
Her dread was well founded. Within days, she was given the evacuation order she knew was coming. She was living on the third floor of a house on a barrier island and relocated to a motel farther inland and closer to the newsroom. As she left, Watson gave her keys to her neighbors, who were planning to stay at the time, and told them to shelter in her apartment if the flooding got as bad as predicted.
“That was my first experience of people that I knew really suffering from an impending disaster, and it affected me deeply. But I’m a communicator, a writer, and that was the only tool I had to help.”
Back in the newsroom, she watched the tide gauges rise and listened to the police scanner. As the storm went on, even the first responders, normally talkative and confident, sounded somber and increasingly quiet. Then residents began calling the newsroom when 911 was too overwhelmed to assist everyone. Watson says she had no idea what to tell people; she had never trained as a first responder. But she tried to help where she could.
The newsroom stayed open, and when the power went out, she worked by candlelight with no power until relocating to colleagues’ homes that still had electricity. Earlier that year, there had been a derecho, an intense and drenching storm with seventy-mile-per-hour winds, which Watson says sent the region “into the Stone Age.” The electrical grid went down, and like so many places facing repeated disasters, the area had recovered only months before Sandy hit.
In the end, Hurricane Sandy caused an estimated $50 billion in damages and destroyed thousands of homes, and although the numbers remain contested, close to one hundred people died in the United States alone.1
Watson says that she had intense guilt for many years after the storm, wondering what she could have done differently to be more effective at getting people out of harm’s way.
In the midst of Hurricane Sandy recovery, which Watson spent more than a year covering, she was also preparing to go back to school to learn more about climate change and what she was witnessing. She notes, “It wasn’t until I was back in school and learning more about human behavior that I started to let some of my guilt go.”
Her graduate work in planning and policy at Rutgers led to her current position in extension—a system of professionals who provide locally grounded technical expertise as part of the Sea Grant or the cooperative extension system in the United States—which was a natural fit for the kind of applied scientific work she wanted to do. Only partly joking, she says she now wishes she’d also pursued a social work degree.
With her extension position in South Carolina, Watson has been working to make Charleston home. When she describes the smell of the South Carolina coast, her face lights up. “There is just this incredible fragrance the salt marsh has that draws people to it. I’m an ocean swimmer, and this place offers me tranquility.” However, she says, “The irony is that the place I’ve chosen is shifting drastically at the same time.”
She finds herself with the same wet feet as the people she works with. “I think that can be something that people don’t always understand. In extension work, we live in the communities we work with, and that changes things. I’m not making predictions from a faraway office—I experience the same things everybody else experiences. And I have to look people in the eyes every day; I am accountable to them.”
Watson notes that scientists and decision-makers spent decades talking about climate change as an abstract, distant problem. Today, she worries that current estimates of sea level rise, and the related advice she is asked to deliver about how high to raise a given building or piece of infrastructure, have in fact been too conservative. Not to mention the difficulties of addressing the many inequities inherent in disaster preparedness and recovery. On many days, she feels inadequately prepared to communicate the risks that she and her neighbors are facing. She is not alone.
To appreciate why traditional science communication methods are running up against big limitations in the face of these contemporary challenges, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand a bit more about the evolution of the field and its emergence as a profession in its own right.
The Rise of Science Communication as a Profession—and Its Lingering Debates
The professionalizing field of science communication is still young, but it is not new. The vast and global history of science communication2
—as long as there has been science, people have been communicating it—is best left to qualified historians, but reviewing some recent highlights that influence the central arguments of this book is worthwhile.
One early reference to science communication as a profession in the United States was published seventy years ago. In 1951, William F. Hewitt Jr. published a compelling article in Science
presenting the need for a new focus on science communication. He argued that to open the channels of communication between scientists and the public, the large quantity of scientific information being produced needed to be organized, a concern that has only increased.3
Hewitt proposed that this work be undertaken by a group of scientist-communicators who would be recognized at a professional level comparable to that of academic researchers. Although the function he described was closer to how we might think of librarians today, Hewitt’s idea of a field of professional science communicators was certainly prescient.
Since that time, science communication as a field has grown and remains somewhat fractured. For some, science communication means informal science education done in museums and at aquaria. For others, it comprises outreach to K–12 students in person and online. For still others, it’s about podcasts or media interviews or who will be “the next Carl Sagan.” There is also plenty of brilliant science communication happening on social media by a growing number of influencers who develop Twitter threads and games, Instagram stories, and YouTube videos that are truly and creatively engaging.
In addition, the US Cooperative Extension System associated with land-grant universities has one hundred years of institutional experience in science engagement. For those not familiar with the model, cooperative extension is integrated into the land-grant university system and exists at universities in every state across the United States and in several territories.4
The system was designed based on the recognition, beginning in the early 1900s, that scientific research should be developed with and communicated to the people whom its results affect. There is no doubt that the history of land theft and racism that underpins land-grant institutions5
must be addressed along with their legacy6
to ensure that those institutions benefit all residents and communities in the United States. However, partly because of these issues, cooperative extension does provide useful lessons for community-engaged research and communication.
Furthermore, community or participatory science—previously called citizen science—can be yet another arena for science communication practice. Science writing by professional journalists is a related pursuit, though usually considered a form of communication different from the type scientists and professional science communicators engage in.7
In fact, one of the biggest challenges, and promises, for science communication is the variety of expectations and backgrounds that people bring to it. Many contemporary efforts are attempting to bridge the diversity of fields—including everything from psychology to journalism to data science—that science communication both draws from and contributes to, and there is a lot of work yet to be done.
Science communication itself can be broadly defined as “communicating science with nonexperts,” whose ranks we all fill most of the time. It can go by other names as well—outreach, engagement, public understanding of science—terms that, while not synonymous, can refer to a similar set of efforts. While the precise definition can be endlessly argued, some contend that there are best practices that cut across fields. For example, much has been researched and written about what is known as the deficit approach to communication.8
The deficit model assumes that information is what is lacking in getting to any given outcome, whether that be leading people to take action or behave in what is considered an appropriate way when it comes to diet or vaccines or any number of subjects. However, research has shown that a dearth of information is rarely the primary barrier to action. Yet many experts continue to use this model, and some vociferously advocate for it and its cousin “Just the facts, ma’am.” This debate and others like it will undoubtedly continue well into the future.
Discussion about science communication from previous decades tended to focus on the “newness” of the field. At this point, however, it is clear that there is not only a long history to science communication that extends beyond contemporary practice and the scope of this book9
but in fact an overwhelming amount of information on how to communicate science. The much bigger job for science communicators, therefore, becomes discerning what applies to any particular context and working to fill specific gaps in their practice.
Advice on communicating climate change, for instance, is readily available. Some of it comes from climate scientists,10
some from researchers,11
some from advocates,12
some from institutions.13
It’s coming from people and organizations in different fields ranging from climate
to public health16
and more. There is important work being done to illuminate whom climate communication and activism are done by, for, and with.17
Some is based on research, some is based on practice, some is theoretical and based on what has “worked” in other arenas. Even wading through different perspectives on climate change itself necessitates more than passing interest, and while some people welcome the plurality of knowledge, others argue for better boundaries around what knowledge is truly valuable for climate communication.
Indeed, when getting science communication advice, it is helpful to ask where it originated, who is dispensing it—and to what end. How any given practitioner prioritizes their approach is determined by training, communication style, and audience. In other words, it’s mostly about context.