Adaptive Science Communication: An Approach to an Uncertain Communication Environment

 JUL 9, 2015    by KRISTIN TIMM

This post originally appeared on March 22, 2013 and is part of our throw-back series.

I recently tuned in to a video archive of a virtual journal discussion on the science of science communication. During the video, one of the leading researchers in science communication, Dietram Scheufele, suggested that working in this field was like, “trying to hit a moving target from a car driving in circles at 100 at miles per hour.” As I currently work on developing my own research in this area, I couldn’t agree more. Being involved in a relatively new field of research is exciting, but it is also challenging—almost every new “Google Scholar” alert that pops up in my email for “climate change communication” includes a paper (or even two) that completely (or at least partially) rearranges my way of thinking.

However, I recognize that in this period in time, where many social ecological systems are rapidly changing, this feeling and analogy is probably not unique to science communication. In the science of science communication, there are a few important complexities:

  • The mediums of actually disseminating the information (i.e. blog, newspaper, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are evolving rapidly. As a result, the ways people communicate and interact with each other are different than they were before and are also changing rapidly.
  • Often the science itself, that we are aiming to communicate, continues to become more complex and intertwined with value-laden social issues. As a result, we have to recognize that good science communication is more than just the unidirectional transfer of facts and information.
  • The social science approaches and methods of investigating these factors comes from several disciplines and is still fairly new and often exploratory.

So how do you keep moving forward—identifying good research questions and applying the best social science research to continually improve your science communication practices—in a field that is changing so fast? The webinar forced me to think about other rapidly changing systems, and the way in which the stakeholders involved in research and decision making try to manage the uncertainties.

I recalled a class from last semester on adaptive management, and decided to explore the idea of “adaptive science communication” as a different approach. First described by C.S. Holling in 1978, adaptive management is based on the idea of learning through doing. It is an approach that embraces uncertainty as inevitable. Rather than managing a system based on the best guess of what is expected (and risk being wrong or having an institution too rigid to quickly adapt), it is a management approach that experiments with it’s own decisions and integrates that knowledge as it goes along. (The US Department of the Interior has a nice description of adaptive management on their website.)

I believe that an adaptive approach to science communication could be good for science and the field of science communication in these times of rapid change and high uncertainty. There will always be a place for people who are studying communication and the associated psychological and social constructs. However, I’m not sure I’ll actually be a science communication researcher all my life. I love the practical side science communication. Furthermore, many research funding agencies ask their grant recipients to propose and carry out outreach and communication activities to audiences outside the research community. I wouldn’t expect a glaciologist, biologist, astrophysicist, etc. to have to learn enough social science to formally research and evaluate the impacts of their communication efforts.

However, without systematically learning from the application of science communication, we are missing an opportunity to advance the field of science communication and improve our personal and institutional communication practices. One approach to solving this problem could be the facilitation of partnerships between graduate students and researchers of the bio-physical sciences and communication, psychological, and social sciences. These partnerships could be used to develop and test interesting research questions in communication (of which there seem to be many). Another approach may be to create easy to access and use social science research tools or protocols, such as the Climate Change 6 America’s survey tool—which enables anyone to build a better understanding of their audience through an easy to use research tool versus guessing. Finally, we need ways to reflect on what has been learned and incorporate these ideas into new decisions. Several international conferences have communication, education, and outreach sessions–but even dialogue about practice and research at the local level could be incredibly useful as communication is often so context dependent.

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