Communicating scientific research to a wider audience – lessons from the IPCC

The project’s second post-doctoral Research Associate, Suzi Richer, joined the team at the beginning of February. Suzi will be focusing on communicating the results of the project to wider audiences.

Science may never come up with a better

Perhaps this post should be called ‘the serendipitous checking of twitter over a cup of tea’. While I was doing just that I stumbled across the live feed for the IPCC Expert Meeting on Communication being hosted in Oslo, Norway, on the 9–10th February 2016.  Intrigued, I listened in.

Taking a particular focus on communicating climate change, the meeting was explicitly looking at the relationship between researchers and policy makers, journalists and communities.

“Communication is the interface between science and policy” Robert Watt, Stockholm Environment Institute

It struck me that although archaeological research was not a component of the meeting, there were potentially many resonances with how we communicate scientific results within archaeology and other disciplines. The following is therefore a short summary of my initial thoughts and a collection of links to some of the snippets that could be seen as relevant to archaeology as a whole, and to perhaps African archaeology in particular.

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As Richard Black (@_richardblack) pointed out, much of what was said is common sense. But seeing the application of communication strategies – what works and what doesn’t work – and being made to think about them in relation to research, can only ever be a useful exercise. Effectively it’s about stepping back and thinking about the wider implications of your research, and more importantly who it is likely to be relevant to.

Who are your audience and what do they want?

The needs of the end-user need to be considered as part of the whole research process, particularly when you’re thinking about dissemination of results and increasingly before you even start your research. Your readers’ wants and needs should be considered if you want to engage them with your research. There will be massive variation within each group, and this was a theme that could be traced through much of the discussion. Simbisai Zhanje suggested that within the policy-making group there will be massive variation from people who require high-level summaries (Ministers) to those that want the detail (technocrats). Time spent getting to know your audience will never be wasted!

Paul Lussier took the theme further and presented ‘New Strategies in Science Communication’, which was illustrated by a great table (original table can be found in the link above) about the different sectors, and the types of messages/language used:

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He also showed the link in making climate research ‘relevant’ to people lives:

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I wonder if we can use a similar model to think through how, say, changes in subsistence practices in the past, might have relevance to people today?

Hunter Cutting raised the point that journalists always want something ‘new’ and fresh. Whereas Rabelani Tshikalanke took a context-specific perspective and suggested that in Africa the local policy makers have to make decisions based on the ‘complicated picture they get from…assessment reports’ and that the report language may be exact, but not appropriate for their needs. The issue of language was also reflected here:

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How do we express uncertainty?

As we’ve just seen, the language we use as researchers is often very specific, especially in terms of uncertainty. How we express the uncertainty within our results to a wider audience is likely to affect how research is taken-up, and also how willing researchers are to have their data used.

Susan Hassol described a process of putting together the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and how confidence/uncertainty was expressed within it. Detailed assessments of confidence were included, but these were within a special section (again recognising that different audiences will want different degrees of information).

Although I didn’t hear David Budescu’s talk, his paper is a fascinating read. He takes a look at how people perceive statements like ‘unlikely’ and ‘likely’ and if we can (and should) put probabilities with these qualities statements. Different audiences also perceive these terms differently:

“The public interprets probabilistic statements in the IPCC reports as less extreme – much closer to 50% – than intended by the authors!” David Budescu, Fordham University

Writing is a repetitive process

I think we have all experienced the process of writing. We write something, we take a break, we go back to it. We get more data, we go back to it. Our thoughts change, we go back to it. We receive comments, we go back to it.

If you have any experience of working with a press office, then the process of drafting a press release is like this. We should be applying responsive and adapative process to all the sectors that we want to work with, whether it is a local community or a policy-maker.

“The process is integrated, iterative, and continuous.” Susan Hassol, Climate Communication

By understanding the needs of your audience, ‘translating’ your research into their language, using the media appropriate to them (printed, image intense, social media, video) and keeping the message simple, there is more chance that your research will be understood, appreciated and more importantly, used. And what better way to start that process of engaging wider audiences than over a cup of coffee (or tea)?

Full details and advance papers for the meeting can be found here: https://www.ipcc.ch/meeting_documentation/meeting_documentation_ipcc_workshops_and_expert_meetings.shtml

Twitter feed: #IPCCOslo

Go to our staff pages to find Suzi’s contact details.

 

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