The importance of science communication
We are constantly reminded that we need more people to study and practice science.
If science discovery and information were communicated more effectively, would people gain a better understanding of it and be more inclined to take it up as a career or make better use of it in their daily lives?
That’s what University of Waikato PhD student Sarah Hall wants to find out as part of her research.
Sarah says it was her Summer Research Scholarship at Waikato that sparked an interest in scientific research, and ultimately drew her to what’s now become her thesis topic.
For her first summer research scholarship, she worked with internationally renowned memory expert Professor Maryanne Garry to gather evidence about the qualities of people’s traumatic memories and how they compared with negative, positive or neutral memories.
“There is a widespread idea in both the psychological literature and popular culture that people’s memories for trauma are fragmented and remembered in bits and pieces out of order; that is, they are incoherent,” Sarah says.
“It turns out people’s traumatic memories are just as coherent as their non-traumatic memories. These findings fit with the growing body of evidence to suggest, contrary to popular belief, people’s traumatic memories are recalled in much the same ways as non-traumatic memories.”
While this scholarship research wasn’t directly related to what would later become her doctoral study, Sarah says it gave her good research experience and encouraged her to continue pursuing research.
Sarah was home-schooled in Hokitika, came north for work, and found herself drawn to university.
She did her summer research before embarking on her honours year, which was the beginning of her study into science communication.
“Scientific communication poses a challenge,” Sarah says. “Ideally you want to clearly highlight the issue being addressed at each stage in a study, any key conclusions and implications while fully acknowledging the limitations of the evidence.”
A proposed theory for highlighting issues being addressed throughout a study is using ‘but’ rather than ‘and’ to draw attention to a conflict.
“Highlighting a conflict may then increase reader interest and understanding,” Sarah says.
She studied more than 500 journal articles investigating whether a higher ratio of ‘but’ to ‘and’ was associated with more citations (a measure of impact). She found little difference to support that theory.
Her second summer research scholarship followed on from the communication study, looking at broader measures such as engagement on social media.
“We again found little difference to support the idea that a higher ratio of ‘but’ to ‘and’ was associated with more impact,” she says.
There’s a scarcity of literature that directly evaluates science communication efforts and so for her PhD research Sarah’s investigating what makes scientific communication effective.
Alongside the ‘but’ and ‘and’ research, she’ll be looking at the use of plain English, and quality of evidence.
“And I’ll also be looking at the dark side of science: when these writing techniques don’t lead to effective scientific communication but instead have the potential to spread misinformation,” she says.