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 Science communication is increasingly expected by grant agencies, specifically, the National Science Foun- dation (NSF). NSF grants require a section on Broader Impacts, the benefit of the science to society. Broader Impacts are often centered on science communication and public engagement activities such as museum exhibit partnerships, public science talks, nontechnical website development, or presentations to policy makers (see By communicating our science, we not only engage with diverse audiences but we can also increase fund- ing for our work! The NSF-funded center on Advancing Research Impact in Society (see is an excellent resource to learn more about creating mean- ingful and fundable Broader Impacts activities.
Trust Matters
Surveys demonstrate a positive view of science in the United States. Consistently, over 70% of Americans think that scientific research has a net positive benefit to soci- ety and scientists are generally viewed as trustworthy (National Science Board, 2018; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2020). Recently, that trust has increased. A Pew Research Center survey of over 10,000 adults in the United States found that public trust in scientists increased during the period spanning January 2019 to November 2020, likely as a result of the pandemic that has placed science in the center of public discourse.
However, this trust differs based on demographics such as race, education, and political affiliation (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2020). Trust is a key factor in the acceptance of scientific information, particularly trust in the communicator (Fiske and Dupree, 2014; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2020). As scien- tists, it is up to us to engender trust from our audience
while being sensitive to the legitimate mistrust from his- torically marginalized groups. One of the best ways to promote trust is to communicate authentically, to show up as ourselves, and to share our experiences.
Audience and Goals
Although it is critical to understand our own motivations for communication, our communication should center on our audience. Often, the word “audience” brings to mind the old “sage on a stage” model of the scientist talking at people. Here, I use the term audience to describe our nontechnical communication partners, often thought of as
“publics.” I deliberately avoid the singular public because
this term implies a monolithic other, a faceless sea of nonscientists at the opposite end of the room. Publics are diverse, and we need to understand their motivation, per- spective, and values to engage in authentic communication activities. Are you talking to a group about a community science project on noise pollution in their neighborhood? This group may already be deeply concerned about the topic, so you don’t need to convince them that noise pol- lution matters. Instead, they may want to learn about using a smartphone app to collect data on local noise levels or get involved crafting local noise ordinances. Talking to a group of music lovers about the history of guitars? Again, you likely have a self-selected group (barring the occa- sional friend or relative who was talked into attending!), so you don’t need to convince the audience why your topic matters. In these examples, you already have interest; it is up to us to hold that interest.
For other audiences, we may need to convince them that our topic is interesting. Someone channel surfing the radio or TV isn’t looking for science content, but if our story is interesting enough, these audiences might stop and listen. Enthusiasm is key in these situations. Ed Jahn, the executive editor for science and environment at Oregon Public Broadcasting (see, was once asked about his favorite piece for the TV program Oregon Field Guide. He instantly recalled an episode about lichens, plantlike symbiotes that artfully grace trees in the Pacific Northwest. Although lichens are interesting, the episode was memorable because of the scientist. She was engaging, funny, and excited about lichens! By bring- ing our authentic selves to our communication activities, we humanize science and create opportunities for non- scientists to engage with us on a personal level.
How do we learn about our audience so we can tailor our communication to meet their goals? In formal com- munication situations, like a media interview or a talk for the local Lions Club, the host is our best resource. Ask questions in advance such as length of the presentation or interview, level of interactivity expected, and audience background, values, and interests. I once gave a talk to the Humanists of Greater Portland, with a focus on how the ear works, how we lose our hearing, and how stud- ies in animals like fish can help us understand hearing regeneration. After the talk I was bombarded with ques- tions about hearing aids! Turns out the group was mostly senior citizens who were interested in assistive-listening
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