Bellisario College program seeks to improve the way science is communicated

Communicating scientific discoveries to the general public and informing public policy is a science itself. Through research and collaboration, Penn State’s Science Communication Program(SCP) is building on past research and developing novel programs that can help scientists more effectively spread the news of their work.

The program, which launched this year in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, advances science’s impact by identifying practices that effectively translate often complex data into a messages for all types of audiences. It supports multidisciplinary collaborations and attracts funding for science communication projects — all with the goal of developing a better public understanding of science.

“Scientists are too often surprised by how people interpret their work,” said Lee Ahern, director of the program and associate professor of advertising-public relations. “They don’t expect people to be against it because they see and understand the evidence. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, people don’t hear the science.”

For example, SCP faculty will connect with researchers who study a variety of topics, such as energy, agriculture, climate and health. The teams will work together to create an effective plan so the research is impactful at the broadest scale.

The process begins by monitoring the current pulse of a topic. What do people know? How are they affected? How do they feel about it? Unsurprisingly, debates can be heated and complicated. It is important for researchers to be ready with a strong plan that includes answers to key questions and practical results, Ahern said.

Past research has shown sociopolitical standing affects how people view social issues. Best practice, Ahern said, is to tailor messages for different audiences so it is informative and not threatening. Easier said than done, of course, as topics like climate change and vaccinations have become highly politicized.

“The science (of climate change) is complex,” he said. “I read a lot about it, and I can’t explain why it’s happening, but I trust the scientists that can.”

Building that trust for science starts with education. Ahern said SCP is developing support materials and modules that will train undergraduate and graduate students on the basics of media relations and science communication. Other educational opportunities may be tailored for primary and secondary school students and other audiences.

The SCP will also play an important role in securing funding for projects. Funding agencies often want to know how new research benefits society. Assistance and administrative resources from the Bellisario College and Penn State’s Strategic Interdisciplinary Research Office will help faculty members strengthen federal and foundation grant proposals, and in turn increases the likelihood of funding.

“It’s about making a broader impact. How can we help people?” Ahern said. “It’s the whole reason behind getting funding and doing research.”

The program is teaming up with a number of Penn State organizations. Affiliate programs include the Broader Impacts Resource Center, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Center for Science and Schools, and Penn State Extension. The SCP is also collaborating with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment and the Social Science Research Institute.

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