Tips for effective #scicomm

Lindy Orthia and Rachel Morgain

How do you get people to care about your science? Is anybody listening?

Science communication is more than great charisma or fun writing. Context matters. So we produced this infographic of 5 mnemonics to help.

If you want to know more about any of the 5, read on.

Click image to download or find it at slideshare here.

Orthia & Morgain Scicomm tool

1. Basics: The 6 Ws and an H

Researchers from Australia and New Zealand asked science communication experts to list the most important things sci comm students need to learn.

Their top responses are a great starting point for scientists venturing into public communication:

Who? Think about who you’re communicating with – your audience or communication partners. What do you know about them? What don’t you know? Use language appropriate for them, respect them, and build trust.

Why? Know why you’re there – your aims – and why your communication partners are there, which might be different. Acknowledge these openly. Use this awareness to frame your approach.

What? There’s probably tons of content you could share on your topic, but you can’t include it all, and trying will ruin good comms. When choosing what to include, consider what your audience already knows, what is most relevant to them and how they’ll use the information.

How? If you have a choice, choose a medium (e.g. television, social media, community meeting) appropriate to your audience, content and aims. Understand your medium’s conventions and limitations. Seek training if you want it.

When? Where? What’s going on here right now that might matter? Don’t ignore the impact of timing and location.

Which other contextual factors? Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum – you are communicating with people who already know, think and feel things about you and the topic. Think deeply about this context, especially the factors outlined in 2 & 3.

2. Expectations: The 5 ‘I’s

Lindy Orthia uses the 5 ‘I’s when thinking about how science is represented in the media for her teaching and research. But it’s also a way of brainstorming how your comms partners might be thinking about you and what they expect of you while communicating:

Identities. Science involves people. How your audience perceives those people (including you) can affect your communication. Are scientists scary, heartless, friendly, altruistic? How might their preconceptions and the new impressions you make affect your message and relationship?

Institutions. All of us have pre-existing views about the trustworthiness of different institutions where science is done, connected with their aims, constraints and past performance. How might this affect your relationship building?

Ideologies. Not everyone responds to science-related ideologies in the same way. Reductionism, biological determinism, objectivity – even something as seemingly innocuous as ‘science is great’ – are ideologies. Are these impacting your connection with your audience? Do you have a larger aim to convert your audience (subconsciously or otherwise)?

Issues. Some science topics are controversial, and people will already have strong opinions about them that require care if you are to really connect. If you’re communicating about climate change, GM or nanotech you may want to seek specialist communication advice.

Information. First impressions of you might well be based on all of the above, before you even get to communicating your information of interest. It’s naïve to think you can impart information without thinking about the rest.

3. Broader contexts: The SPIICE of science

The SPIICE of science can help you take a bigger picture view of the contextual elements at play. All of these affect people’s general perceptions of science, and therefore your communication:

Social. The ‘S’ is about society’s structures and networks. Think about the place science occupies within society and how people feel about that generally. How does science shape the ways society is organised and run? How is science in turn shaped by that?

Political. The ‘P’ is all about power. How have political imperatives from governments constrained or enabled the science in your field? How might micro-power inequalities be influencing the ways you communicate, and even how you developed your ideas?

Institutional. The first ‘I’ element asks how the institutions in which science is undertaken and shared shape scientific research, and public perceptions about it. How might the science you have undertaken have been impacted by your institutional context?

Ideological. The second ‘I’ asks how ideological values, such as competition or egalitarianism, environmentalism or market forces, shape science, both in general and for you. Are you acknowledging your ideological lens?

Cultural. The ‘C’ is for culture: habits, values, and expectations of how communication will proceed, the language that will be used, and what roles we each play.

Economic. Last but not least, the ‘E’ refers to the unavoidable fact that science costs money, from taxpayers, donors or profits. The economic bottom line will always be present somewhere in communication about science.

4. and 5. Outcomes: AEIOU x 2

Australian science communicators have come up with two mnemonics that can help you think about why you’re doing public communication in the first place. Both use the formulation AEIOU to list those potential outcomes.

Outcomes for publics

In 2003, three sci comm researchers summarised the desirable outcomes of science communication as fostering individuals’ personal Awareness of science, their Enjoyment of it, Interest in it, Opinions about it, or Understanding of it.

Outcomes for professionals

More recently, Rachel Morgain developed this version of AEIOU, aimed at encouraging scientists to engage more actively with specific stakeholders, external collaborators and governments, rather than just a general ‘public’:

Acknowledgement. Acknowledging partners means celebrating your collaborative networks and strengthening your ties.

Exchange. Communication isn’t all one way – it enables you to exchange ideas that might reshape your thinking.

Influence. If you want your research to have an impact on policy and public action, you must get involved in engagement beyond the ivory tower.

Opportunities. Engagement with other stakeholders can lead to new research ideas and funding opportunities.

Uptake. Getting people involved in your research at an early stage is the most direct pathway to having it applied.


And another

And my second post for The Conversation concerns similarities between this year’s federal election issues and the concerns of Sydney citizens writing into the Sydney Gazette in 1803 and 1804.


First article for The Conversation: Doctor Who’s female scientists through time

Today marks a significant event in any academic’s life – my first article for The Conversation.

Even more significant for a science communication academic who wants to practice what she preaches.

Rachel Morgain and I published a piece based on our Doctor Who, gender and science research paper which is already gaining traction in the number of reads.

Very exciting!

What’s wrong with talking about the Scientific Revolution? Let me tell you…

Today I published in Minerva a review paper examining the reception of a classic 1993 history of science paper by Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams that proposed a new big picture of the history of science to replace the prevailing ‘Scientific Revolution’-based big picture.

Cunningham and Williams proposed instead that ‘science’ (read modern, western science) was invented in the late 18th/early 19th century in an institutional and ideological sense. And therefore science is only modern and western, and needs to be de-centred within our big picture conceptions of the history of human knowledge-making, and seen more on a par with every other knowledge-making system across the world and through time.

I have been enamoured of their paper since I read it, and wanted to find out if other scholars have accepted, rejected or ignored it in the 20 years since they published it. In other words, should I take it seriously?

Hence my review paper, published here.

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Viewers learn about the Nature of Science from The Big Bang Theory

In a new paper I co-authored with my PhD student Rashel Li, we show that viewers of The Big Bang Theory learn about aspects of the nature of science from the sitcom. The paper was published in the International Journal of Science Education Part B, and was based on data from Rashel’s PhD research. Continue reading

Honours student’s study on science theatre now published

In 2011 I co-supervised Martina Donkers in an innovative honours project in which she put on a production of the play A Number by renowned English playwright Caryl Churchill, then undertook survey and focus group-based research to find out whether and how audience members engaged with the play’s theme human cloning.

We have now published that research in the International Journal of Science Education, Part B available here.

If you can’t get past the journal paywall, you can try here instead.

Congratulations Marti!

Another undergraduate-driven study accepted for journal publication

In 2012 I co-supervised then-undergradute student Amy Dobos in a research project examining the effectiveness of digitally-produced pictures for communicating about Alzheimer’s disease research (see here and here). Amy created the pictures using her skills as a photographer and science communicator, and then surveyed people interested in Alzheimer’s disease about their interpretations of them.

A paper writing up that research has now been accepted for publication in one of the best science communication journals, Public Understanding of Science.

Amy is the lead author of the paper, followed by me and project advisor, Rod Lamberts.

This is the third student-authored journal paper to have emerged from a student-run research project conducted through one of my undergraduate courses.

My heartfelt congratulations to Amy.

Update May 27 – now prepublished online here.

Queer scientists in television science fiction

Republished blog post, first posted at Diffusion in January 2010.
Edited only to update some key dates and references, so the content reflects the time.
Posted for archival purposes.

The UK’s public broadcaster the BBC has this month [January 2010, the original date I posted this essay] commissioned a study into representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in its fiction and non-fiction programs (BBC News, 2010).

Of particular interest to science communicators is representations of scientists in fiction, and this study seems a timely prompt to ask: are there any queer scientist characters on telly?

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Doctor Who and Race now published

My first edited book, Doctor Who and Race, was published last week by Intellect books.

The book includes 22 essays by 23 contributors including myself. There are two kinds of essays – short ones in the style of a blog post or short observation, and long ones written in an academic style.

The essays address numerous aspects of race including the diversity and representation of Doctor Who characters, representations of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, nationalism and xenophobia, and intersections between race and science including eugenics and scientific race concepts.

The book is accompanied by a blog at

Doctor Who and Race – Don’t judge till it’s published

The forthcoming book I have edited, Doctor Who and Race, which will be published in July, has received a lot of attention in the media and on blogs this week.

Almost all that attention can be sourced back to one newspaper article about the book.

Since the book has not been published yet, almost no one has actually read it. This has meant that almost everything written about it has been a distorted, false view, based on third- or fourth- hand information.

I don’t particularly want to talk about the book in depth until it is published. I prefer discussion and debate to be based on facts not hearsay, so I would like to talk about it once people have had a chance to read it.

But I do want to clear up some misconceptions about it now.

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