Tips for Grads: The science doesn’t speak for itself – Tips for science communication

By Samantha Helle, PhD candidate, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

“The science speaks for itself.” Actually, it doesn’t. But you, you can speak for your science. In an increasingly interconnected world, shaped by social trends and social media campaigns, effective science communication is vital for addressing complex global challenges and enacting real, tangible change. I’m not suggesting every scientist needs to become a version of Bill Nye or Jane Goodall. However, the ability to communicate your science to a wide range of audiences expands your impact beyond the confines of a manuscript, a posterboard, or the four walls of a scientific conference. Further, effective science communication can advocate for evidence-based policies and inspire the next generation of scientific innovators.

After recently attending the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) Workshop hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I walked away with a better practical understanding of how to convey my science in a way that can be understood by my six-year-old niece and our state legislators. After meeting with a number of our state’s representatives, I was shocked to find that myself and my UW-Madison colleague were the second or third scientists that had ever stepped foot in our representative’s offices through the span of their lengthy careers. That anecdote alone speaks volumes. So, where do you and your science start in communicating and advocating for science?

Contrary to popular belief, conveying complex ideas does not mean you need to “dumb them down”. This patronizing phrase and ideal is part of a wider systemic barrier between the scientific community and general public. Instead, as scientists, we need to translate, and well, get to the point when engaging with the public and policymakers.

Understanding the differences in our “Cultures of Communication” is the first step in this translation process. As scientists, we spend a lot of time on background and justification for why we do what we do. However, it’s fluff. Instead, think like a policymaker or local Girl Scout selling cookies. Lead with the bottom line: your results and impact. You can then embellish with supporting details as needed.

Graphic showing an upside-down triangle labeled Scientists, with the widest top section labeled background, the middle section labeled supporting details, and the smallest bottom section labeled results and conclusion. In contrast, another triangle next to it labeled Policymakers and Public shows the smallest section on the top labeled bottom line, followed by the middle section labeled Why should we care, and the widest bottom section labeled supporting details. Credit is given to Health, E. in Cultures of Communication from the 2024 CASE Workshop.

Next, listen and be a resource. Speak to your experiences and share your informed opinions on what can be done to improve or mediate the problem your science is attempting to solve. Coming into these conversations as a human who also happens to be a highly skilled and knowledgeable scientist is the best approach. You don’t have to know everything. In fact, being willing to say “I don’t know” is a great way to build trust and connection with whomever you are communicating your science to.

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult for many of us who find ourselves isolated amongst other scientists in our day-to-day lives, put yourself out there. Make meetings with your state representatives asking for more funding towards research and research goals. Get on X/Twitter or Instagram and share what you are doing in the lab/field/community. There is a growing number of avid science communicators and community members who do care about science-based solutions. Get your bottom line out of the manuscript and into wider networks of impact.

If you are interested in learning more, read Seth Anderson’s Tips for Grads: How to engage in science policy and the plethora of science advocacy resources available from AAAS.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.