We are at a moment in time when – more than ever – quality science communication is a matter of saving lives. The coronavirus situation calls for scientific experts who can explain complex and uncertain topics to both policy-makers and the general public.
Public communication of scientific topics such as vaccines and climate change have already shown how tricky this task can be. The public can be overwhelmed by conflicting information or get stuck behind the barrier of complex scientific terms, with consequences to global health and environment. Calls for quality science communication are frequent.
But what exactly is quality in science communication?
In the QUEST project, we have set out to understand how science communication stakeholders think about quality. Anyone who has worked long enough in science communication knows how differently people can understand quality. And this creates tensions: researchers are unhappy with journalists, journalists are suspicious of science communicators, etc. The same news article might trigger quite opposite reactions. One notices a misuse of a term, the other applauds to a succinct metaphor. The text that one finds plain boring, the other might consider very informative and fact-based.
QUEST conducted workshops that use the stakeholders’ input to compose a framework of quality. The collaborative nature of our workshops aimed to harmonize contrasting views. This, in turn, will help us formulate a set of principles that can act as guidance in science communication situations ranging from producing TV shows to tweeting about latest research.
In the workshops – QUEST partners held six workshops in five partner countries, each inviting 10-15 stakeholder representatives – the participants had to collaboratively map the elements of quality in science communication and bring out relationships between those elements. It was a vital part of the exercise that the groups were composed of representatives of various stakeholder groups. The final quality map had to represent the common understanding of the group.
Yes, there were instances where people in the end agreed to disagree. But more often they discovered the multifaceted nature of quality and came to an agreement that truly effective science communication needs to consider a list of equally important elements, from style to accuracy to social relevance.
This work is currently in process, but we have already learned that our stakeholders – journalists, researchers, science communicators, decision-makers and members of the public – enjoyed getting together and discussing science communication. No, actually, they loved it! More than once they asked at the end of the workshop to organize these kinds of meetings more often.
If there is one takeaway message from the workshops, it would be: don’t keep you distance. On the one hand, this is relevant to the way we do science communication: bringing scientific results close to the everyday lives of people. But more importantly, our workshop experience taught us that we should bring science communication stakeholders together more often. Having shared understandings of the qualities of science communication will help us resolve ongoing crises and make us better prepared for the next ones.
(Image from workshop organised in Tartu, January 2020)