This study provides both an empirical analysis of strengths and weaknesses of research in the field of Science Communication, and a reflection on its future needs and perspectives.
This study of Science Communication Research (SCR) triangulates a bibliometric and
content analysis of approx. 3,000 journal papers with a multi-stage panel study and a review
of grey literature spanning four decades. Quantitative findings from the journal analysis (e.g.
about disciplinary contexts or topics, research methods, data analysis techniques used) were
considered by a panel of 36 science communication researchers in a multi-stage series of
qualitative interviews. These experts represent the international and disciplinary diversity of
the research field, including past and present editors of the most relevant journals of science
communication, and the majority of the most often cited science communication scholars.
Science Communication Research Maturing as an Academic Field
The number of science communication papers in academic journals has increased
significantly over the past four decades, especially research studies, and particularly in the
last 15 years. The number of countries and institutions contributing papers is also increasing,
and more papers are based on international and national collaborations.
Many experts see both increases in the combination of a sign for SCR to have matured to a
stage where it is now its own academic field.
Science communication is as pluralistic in its research as it is in practice. The mix of
institutions, techniques and disciplines contributes to its diverse status, and often a perceived
absence of a clear theoretical framing, as confirmed by many of the expert statements in this
The results from this study indicate that SCR is facing several ‘grand challenges’. The four most pressing ones are the following:
A research field mostly limited to one-off studies: Compared to the large number of very case-specific studies about the use of certain tools in certain cultural contexts for certain research areas, experts interviewed in this study and also previous analyses unanimously see a need for more longitudinal, comparative and systemic research.
Caught in established disciplinary structures and habits: As shown in this study, SCR is multi-disciplinarily fragmented by the variety of theories used. Scientific communities such as in Media Studies or Marketing, Sociology of Science or Social Psychology, often use different jargon, and present their results at different conferences and in different journals. The opportunity of an interdisciplinary integration of the different research traditions has not been seized yet.
Lack of transfer between scholarship and practice: In addition to these inner-academic challenges, SCR is limited by a second disconnect—between scholarship and practice. Neither takes sufficient notice of the other’s priorities, challenges and solutions. After debating this at three “Science of Science Communication” Conferences in Washington over the years, the USA pioneered a tandem initiative called “Research Partnerships” in winter 2017. Challenges and solutions to align SCR better with practice, finally led to the world’s first Symposium on “Evidence-based Science Communication”. All of the above-mentioned initiatives have identified a direct result of the double-disconnect: a lack of application and implementation, experimentation and applied research.
Lack of diversity in research topics: SCR insufficiently acknowledges certain publics and actors, e.g. the science communication practitioners themselves; people generally uninterested in science; partisan and influential pressure-groups and ‘deniers’, etc.
Experts interviewed and research literature analysed in this study, show how SCR does not
sufficiently address the challenges above. The following four main clusters of research gaps
have been identified:
Changing information behaviour and attitude-formation: Systemic changes in the digitalised media environments are not yet sufficiently understood, including the recent debates about ‘post-truth’ and data-driven mass-manipulation. In general, science communication often appears more relevant when topics are more controversial. Yet this is not sufficiently addressed by SCR in general. This study has identified research gaps in understanding the formation of societal values and public trust with regard to science and innovation. Research topics could for instance be communicating either consensus or uncertainty, responding to misinformation and framing effects.
Rapidly changing media systems: Digitisation bring about not only new means and tactics but even entirely new actors in communication such as journalistic media platforms which are not ‘journalistically independent’ in a classic sense. Formerly established intermediaries are replaced. SCR should analyse these systemic changes as well as suggesting and experimenting with alternative models and practices.
Evaluation of policy impacts: How to measure and compare the impact of communication on science and innovation policy and regulation is another research gap. This should include not merely institutional or journalistic impact but also political influence from organised interests such as pressure groups and lobbyism. Particularly for statutory regulation processes (e.g. regarding the question to which extent CRISPR technology will legally be treated as mere genetic modification) there is a lack of both methods and impact measurement for formal science engagement such as citizen participation processes from an agenda-setting perspective.
Communication Governance: Considering that science policy increasingly requests
specific forms of communication as part of their funding and / or assessment of research proposals and results, scientific institutions increasingly discuss science communication issues from a governance perspective, both regarding its institutional structures and institutional cultures. This raises the question of how such a communication, which becomes an integral part of academic conduct itself, should be managed and monitored, e.g. regarding incentives and recognition, and how its impact can best be assessed.
This study leads to eight Research Recommendations. In order to structure the research topics to be addressed, the study lists potential topics for future funding schemes directly related to the Research Gaps and Grand Challenges identified in the data.
Greater encouragement should be given to research topics beyond public understanding, attitudes or media studies, such as responding to the replacement of intermediaries. More research is needed about the nexus between science and the changing political and social landscapes. Neglected SCR topics are summarised above under “Research Gaps” above, and described in more detail in the chapter on “Research Recommendations”.
More longitudinal studies that examine changes over time, and more experimental field research, would strengthen science communication and help establish it as an academic field. Only a minority of longitudinal studies so far focuses on audiences and actors.
Science communication research needs to examine specific groups more closely, breaking down the amorphous ‘general-public’ into more meaningful stakeholders such marginalised or science-sceptic audiences, indigenous groups or senior citizens. Also science communication practitioners themselves are hardly being researched at all.
Biology and ecology have dominated disciplinary focuses in SCR for decades—a trend which has recently even increased. This study therefore recommends encouraging research that looks at the entire spectrum of (not just natural) science and (not just technical) innovation. This would include contributions from the humanities, arts and social sciences.
Theoretical foundations in SCR need to be developed further, which will require much closer global and cross-cultural research collaboration. Various disciplinary strengths could be combined into more sophisticated mixed-methods approaches. National research could learn from investigating the diversity of communicating science and innovation. Theory and practice could be integrated e.g. in future study design, while also increasing the replication of international SCR approaches.
Mixing research methods and using new tools needs to be encouraged in SCR. Datamining for instance offers a tool-set which is hardly used in SCR, e.g. for analysing large data sets in areas such as social media.
While SCR mostly investigates single case studies, experts request a wider systems approach to understand how contents and channels, actors and audiences interrelate.
Science communication research is lacking collaboration across cultures and continents or even just beyond national borders.
A significant number of researchers furthermore seems to lack methodological skills, particularly in statistics. Knowledge transfer and capacity building in this respect could be a good starting point for international collaborations.