Blending political communication with science

Communication and research go hand in hand. In a climate where science has, more than ever, proven itself as a source of influence, our leaders could benefit from the fundamentals of research communication. The trust of the public is at risk, and with it, the success of the lockdown exit strategy.

What are the risks of returning to work? What happens if schools reopen? Or universities? Are masks obligatory? What about public transport? Doubt cultivates fear. Hence, clear responses to these essential questions are needed. To celebrate the release of SELL YOUR RESEARCH, Alexia Youknovsky offers a look at some of the fundamentals of science communication in the context of the current climate.

1/ Use data

Scientific reasoning relies on data. How these data are obtained may differ depending on the method used. Researchers base their conclusions on their results, whilst considering the specific conditions in which they were obtained. Hence, just as scientists do, politicians would not doubt benefit from using data to explain their reasoning and the choices they make.

2/ Cultivate understanding

In science communication to the general public, scientists popularise their research. To be better understood, they turn to illustrations that are easier to understand (graphs, charts, photos), limit the use of jargon and infuse their explanations with metaphors. Every day now, the public gather round to hear the latest Covid-19 updates. Deaths, admissions to intensive care, ever more patients in hospital. How can we observe the trend without a clear graph? How can we understand the proportions without a pie chart? It is urgent that we adopt the techniques used in science communication to help citizens better understand the messages they are receiving.

3/ Admit that we don’t know everything

By very definition, in science, we don’t know everything. The very reason research exists is to help us better understand those things we don’t know yet. And that which is true based on today’s data, will evolve based on that of tomorrow. This is unique to the career of a researcher. Faced with a virus about which we knew absolutely nothing four months ago, our politicians could use a dose of this humility and transparency we see in scientists. Yes, the decisions made in March were based on the knowledge we had at that time. Yes, some of those decisions may not have been the best. Surely, if you want to reassure a nation it is better to openly accept imperfection than to tirelessly prop up increasingly unstable, out-of-date conclusions.

SELL YOUR RESEARCH – Public Speaking for Scientists, co-authored by Alexia Youknovsky and James Bowers, has just been released by Springer (Springer Nature Group). This book describes how to prepare a science presentation that is clear and convincing. According to Dr. Laura Helmuth, Health, Science and Environment Editor at the Washington Post, “Public speaking is one of the most intimidating but crucial tasks in a scientist’s career. This book provides a welcoming, clear, step-by-step guide to improving your presentations.” For Dr. Stephen Webster, Director of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London, “This book is a goldmine of useful advice,” which is “solidly researched and immaculately written”.

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