Science Communication from Inside an Academic Research Hospital: Tailoring Your Message for Your Audience

The dissemination of current events news in today’s ‘connected’ world occurs at an astounding pace as is clearly exemplified by the rapidity and volume with which scientific research findings are being published. It is the science communicators’ responsibility to function as a translating interface between the scientists and a non-specialist audience to ensure that research findings and their messages are accurately conveyed. An added level of complexity is the increased resources and communication tools available—such as print, media or Web—that necessitate a strategic approach to investigating, assembling and conveying scientific findings to a more knowledgeable and science-savvy public. Therefore, in addition to identifying their audience, they must strategically ‘design and tailor’ their message appropriately. Here, we briefly discuss a selection of tools and strategies available to scientific communicators at an academic research hospital and how these tools can be used to effectively communicate scientific news with internal and external stakeholders.

As scientific and technological advances progress, society continues to be presented with discoveries that result in products and policies that have immeasurable impact on health, society and the environment—findings that will continue to change and morph the way we live. Despite a marked increase in total science articles published in peer-reviewed journals (1), the percentage of articles cited in the public domain, like the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune, remains unchanged over the last three decades (2). However, the public’s desire to have scientific findings reported increased from 83 to 87% between 2001 and 2006 (3-4). Therefore, the role and responsibility of the scientific communicator has become ever more critical. Science communicators (SC)—journalists or scientists—sit at the interface between data and the message, and are charged with the daunting task of interpreting the data and delivering the message in a meaningful context to a specific audience, or increasingly, to the general public. The SC is responsible for determining what the message is, what it will mean to the audience, the appropriate manner in which to present the message, and the potential impact the message will have on the audience. With the general public becoming increasingly science knowledge-savvy through Web-connected, open access information, an added level of complexity is created to effectively packaging a message for the masses. Approximately 40 million Americans rely on the Internet as their primary source for science news and information; with the majority under the age of 21 receiving and absorbing the bulk of their information through television and the Internet (5). Internet usage is now a global phenomenon with Web access available in remote locations and as such, one could infer that the Internet now affords scientists with innumerable opportunities for international collaboration that may not have been as feasible through traditional vehicles like conferences, visiting lectureships, or journal publications. With a multitude of new media tools and outlets, the communication of scientific results to a ‘connected’ public requires a more strategically and thoughtfully assembled message. Effective knowledge transfer hinges on SCs working with scientists to tailor messages that will accurately communicate the contents to their audience (6). This has rendered science communication to be a far more intricate and ‘designer’ vocation than it has been in the past.

Why is Communicating Science Important?
Communicating scientific findings is important for a number of reasons, the ultimate being the translation of discoveries into public policy (7). Research has led to remarkable innovations that have been of great benefit to mankind, including uncovering the double-helical structure of DNA (9), the discovery of insulin, the introduction of the first antibiotic penicillin (10), and in our near future, the potential of harnessing the power of stem cells for regenerative medicine. Science is a powerful resource for understanding natural and social phenomena and has an extremely influential role in the formulation of policy and regulatory decisions. From the perspective of an academic research hospital, health care decisions and policies stand to be greatly impacted by the communication of scientific data. Scientific research and its applications have potentially significant returns on economic growth and sustainable human development, to such a degree that our future will become more dependent on the production, dissemination, and use of scientific knowledge. An example is the role of scientific research as a major driving force in health care and the acceptance that the use of scientific knowledge will continue to considerably improve human health. Governments and the private sector of first and second world nations have acknowledged that science is indispensable for development and have contributed significantly to building supportive infrastructure, operations, and programs as a foundation to develop society (11). For example, the Government of Canada created an independent corporation to fund research infrastructure—The Canada Foundation for Innovation’s mandate is to strengthen the nation’s capacity to carry out world-class research and technology development that benefits Canadians and has committed $5.3B in support of 6,800 projects since its inception in 1997 (12). Subsequently, science communication is charged with the responsibility of promoting new knowledge to investors and taxpayers. The power of scientific knowledge and discoveries to effect change has been recognized in many countries, particularly in Canada, where proposals for funding research require applicants to provide detailed plans for knowledge translation (13).

How Science is Communicated: Tailoring Your Message
Discoveries can be communicated through a variety of media and how this is accomplished depends largely upon a number of factors.

Identifying your audience
SC must first determine “who is my audience?” Without answering this at the onset of writing, there is a good chance the message will be lost. It is important to remember that when communicating science, it is for the most part, to a non-specialist group which includes peers who not only are not experts in the given field, but who often may have a limited or generalized science background. The audience could include mediators (communicators, educators, opinion-makers), decision-makers (policy-makers, scientific and learning institutions), general public (including children and charity), attentive public (general community already interested in science), interested public (interested but not necessarily well-informed about science), as well as the lay public (non-experts) and science community (those directly involved in science) (8). The audience’s level of understanding is strongly associated with their factual knowledge of science and level of education (3). It has been shown that newspaper readership positively correlates with education level (14) and for an academic hospital-based research institute, the audience base is wide—ranging from clinical staff and scientists to patients—and thus the communicator must carefully construct a message that will translate to a broad readership.

Identifying Your Message
Next, it is critical to summarize the main points that need to be communicated. At an academic research institute, this runs the gamut in terms of message type (reporting new research findings, internal events related to research, etc.) and institute seniority and educational background of the audience. For example, communications could be directed towards Senior Management or Board of Trustees members—individuals who could potentially not have a significant science background—staff on clinical wards, foundation or public affairs team members, fellow scientists and graduate students, as well as patients and external stakeholders. It is imperative that the message is determined before any writing occurs. As a general rule, communicators should determine three or fewer compelling points about the results of a study to ensure a greater awareness and comprehension of the material (15). For example, when reporting novel research findings to the foundation, with the mandate to increase total philanthropic funds procured by the hospital, content should use plain language or analogies to enable donor audience comprehension. This could include focusing on the main study findings as they relate to a particular human disease or condition to help the audience understand why this research is relevant to them. Moreover, if the same research findings were to be presented to Senior Management, they may be spun from a commercialization or investment-centered angle to highlight the innovation potential residing within the institution’s walls. The main focus should be to keep findings and their relevance short and easy to follow by using common, easily understood words, and short sentences.

Identifying Your Medium
Communicating findings within the context of an academic research institute include electronic and paper publications. For either medium the rules are the same—easy to understand language and three or fewer compelling points to get your message across. The past decade has seen a surge in Web-based and open-access tools aimed at disseminating information quickly and concisely. Consequently, for daily, weekly or monthly publications, (i.e., electronic newsletters, messages from Senior Management) the best means of communications is through electronic or web-based tools. For content published online, the message should remain extremely short (< 150 words) and start with why the finding/message is important to the audience. This inverted pyramid method states the main findings/relevance first, and then follows with content explaining how and who conducted the study. The title should also be kept short (approximately 55 characters) and contain a verb to bring a sense of action and movement to the piece. The short length of electronic pieces is imperative as popular new media tools like Twitter only allow 150 character messages. There have been multiple studies regarding the readability or ease of reading from a computer (16) addressing issues of reading retention when scrolling down pages or visual fatigue from monitor glare. With more individuals reliant on receiving information electronically, it will become increasingly important to hone writing skills towards the electronic medium. Although the electronic tsunami may be rushing in, there are times when print pieces are more appropriate for the message—annual reports, strategic plans outlining institutional future directions, or a message to donors, which due to requisite content, afford communicators more space to explain the message. Plain language should still be used; however, more descriptive text can be included to paint a comprehensive picture. Harnessing the Power of Images
A picture is worth a thousand words and strategy should be used when including images in science communications. Images can be used to include additional information and explanation if there are strict limitations on length. They can also be used as analogies to explain difficult findings or theories, or to showcase the principal investigator. It is important to remember a few critical points when selecting images such as refraining from using images that may be perceived as too graphic or offensive by your audience. In this case, social considerations apply, however, this will vary depending on the topic and region of the world. In addition, images generated from a study can be used as long as they have not been previously published, and one should never take photos of an individual from below their chin, it is an unflattering angle for us all! If you are unsure, you can always contact your public affairs office for their thoughts or ideas.

Timeliness and Credibility
As with all publications, it is important that they are timely—there’s no point in reporting yesterday’s news. An exception to this would be for comprehensive publications that outline findings/activities over a period of time such as annual reports, donor activity reporting or progress reports. In terms of conveying the message to the audience, scientific findings and their impact have a critical window of opportunity. There is no point in telling people about findings that are now considered ‘old’ by research standards. Equally as important as timeliness is credibility and the best way to ensure this is by working with scientists directly. It is imperative that material being generated about scientific findings is reviewed and approved by the source—the scientist. This is a significant concern that most scientists have when working with the media (17) and a concern that is easily alleviated.

Future of Science Communication
Scientific progress will continue to generate new knowledge and discoveries that will drastically impact people on a global level. We have touched briefly upon the critical role of SCs for conveying messages that will impact research funding and collaboration, policy change, and informed health decisions. As society moves to a more electronic approach, SCs must work to tailor or ‘design’ their messages effectively for informing the public. At an academic research institute, we are fortunate in that scientists, and public affairs teams, reside within the same walls, allowing for a collaborative atmosphere to advance the communication of research findings. On a more global level, the future of this field will likely see more specialized training programs at universities and other learning institutes that will teach communicators and investigators to work collaboratively and to use a more universal language of communication.


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