CCP’s Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative

In recent years, the field of science communication has been marked by both progress and frustration.  On one hand, basic research has yielded a wealth of new insights into the processes by which scientific information is acquired and interpreted by the public.  On the other, increasingly elaborate and costly initiatives to communicate scientific information have spectacularly failed to dispel cultural conflict over climate change and other disputed science issues.

The reason the science of science communication is yet to generate real-world benefits, we believe, is that it is yet to genuinely set foot in the real world.

To date, the research associated with this emerging field has concentrated predominantly on controlled laboratory experiments and like methods. The insights generated by this form of empirical inquiry are indispensable: by quieting the cacophony of uncontrollable real-world influences, such methods enable researchers to isolate mechanisms of interest, and thus draw confident inferences about their significance—or lack thereof.

But these studies necessarily leave unanswered the question of how results coaxed into revealing themselves in the tranquility of the lab can be reproduced in the chaotic environments in which actual science communication takes place.

The goal of the CCP Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative is to promote translation of general knowledge relating to the mechanisms of science communication into concrete programs tailored to the specific needs of local communities engaged in real-world policymaking.

This goal requires transferring to the field the same methods that have been profitably used in the lab. Disciplined observation, reliable measurement, and valid inference are needed not only to identify the mechanisms of greatest significance for public engagement with science but also to identify which real-world communication strategies genuinely engage those mechanisms.  Speculation, story-telling, and anecdotes are no more useful, no more productive of genuine advancements in understanding in the latter setting than in the former.

But just as important, translation of general science communication knowledge into specific communication programs requires greater collaboration between empirical researchers and science communication professionals. Researchers are equipped to supply communication professionals with valid insight about what sorts of influences are most likely to affect their efforts to inform the public and decisionmakers. But only field communicators possess the real-world experience and judgment needed to identify how insights of this level of generality can be adapted to local needs.

Instead of asking researchers to tell them what to do, then, communicators should be telling researchers how they think they can make use of insights distilled from laboratory work.  Researchers should then be assisting communicators by designing studies and collecting data that can help the researchers test and refine their conjectures.

And once those data are assembled, both communicators and researchers should be making the effort to share what they have learned with others facing the same challenges.

The knowledge generated by evidence-based science communication is a collective good.  Maximizing its production requires development of a culture of reciprocity in which science communicators who derive benefit from access to others’ experiences return the favor by contributing the information byproducts of their own efforts to their profession’s common pool of knowledge.

CCP’s Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative is intended to stimulate exactly this culture of collective, evidence-based professional knowledge production. By participating in as many researcher-practitioner collaborations of this type as possible, and by documenting and freely sharing the results as widely as possible, the Initiative will compile an evidentiary record on the basis of which others in the position to do the same will be able to plainly apprehend the benefits of such activity.

Or will be if the Initiative bears out our hypothesis that translation is the key to realizing the practical benefits of the knowledge generated by the science of science communication.  Only evidence will tell.

The Southeast Florida Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative

Evidence-based science communication readings

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