Science Communication and Cultural Literacy

By Roberta Attanasio, STEMM Leadership Editor

As scientists, we are experts in our specific field of study. As experts, we should be able to break down our work in a manner that everyone can understand. This is a skill unto itself, and is something that we should all be able to do or strive to learn how to do.” This is easier said than done. Communicating to an audience of non-scientists or scientists from very different disciplines is essential to engage in public discourse and policy development, and many scientists are only slowly acquiring new skills that will allow them to become effective in communicating to different audiences.

Science communication is a skill that is based on many other skills. It seeks to inform different audiences on the value of specific scientific discoveries, so that these discoveries can be used, for example, in decision-making. Most scientists prepare for their added role in communication by focusing on acquiring skills such as adopting a nontechnical writing and public speaking style, understanding the most current information technologies, and becoming involved in online social networks.

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

However, as I have already written elsewhere, science communication should not be viewed only as a feeder of information, but as an integral component of our society, playing a major role in the formation of values and beliefs that influence politics and policy across different cultural landscapes. Therefore, I find of particular interest an article recently published by Susan Scrimshaw (Science, health, and cultural literacy in a rapidly changing communications landscape). The author aptly points out that there is a gap between how scientists communicate and how most people understand and interpret messages, and argues that efforts should be made to understand cultural variations in hearing and understanding messages.

The author notes that there are challenges to clear communication and understanding. First, scientists in general tend to use wording and explanations that are not intelligible to the general public, and even to those in other areas of science (I believe there are improvements occurring in this area, though). Second, people hear science communication through a series of filters such as generation, culture, language, literacy, and socioeconomic status (this is something I believe deserves much more attention than it gets now). Third, there is polarization at policy and government leadership levels around the value of science itself (this is a well recognized issue.

Here, I would like to focus on the second challenge. As stated in the article, a focus on knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge is acquired and filtered through people’s identities and lived experiences, and this influences how it is interpreted. As an example, the author highlights the misunderstanding around the concept of a theory. The lay belief is that a theory is speculative, just an idea. Scientists, however, develop theories based on rigorous testing of hypotheses. 

Of all the filters that influence what people say and how they say it, and what people hear and understand, the author focuses on three of them—literacy, ethnicity/culture, and socioeconomic status, and I would like to spotlight literacy. According to the author, although the concept of literacy is traditionally associated with the ability to read, it should include the cultural meanings of words and concepts. Indeed, cultural meanings of words and concepts vary. Thus, the same scientific facts will mean different things to different audiences, depending on which values or beliefs most motivate their information processing. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the cultural and linguistic parameters of a specific audience—one message does not fit all—and involve the community. 

In conclusion, “If you do not engage the community and you do not understand what they are saying, you will not understand what they are hearing. It is not what you say; it is what they hear. They have their own experts and their own people they are paying attention to.”

Copyright © 2016-2020 STEMM Leadership


  1. Science communication is extremely crucial to our society especially in the current political landscape and the misconceptions surrounding science such as global warming. We as science communicators must form a partnership with science communication and the art of storytelling to better illustrate evidence. This is especially important when trying to articulate difficult/complex science topics to non-scientists or scientists from other fields. Part of being an effector communicator of science is being able to adapt to different audiences because every audience is unique and like stated in the post there is no “one message fit all”. Each message should be uniquely tailored to the audience it is being presented, in order to effectively articulate a specific point or topic.

  2. Communication is an established tenant of the scientific process. Usually known as Discussion, whenever an experiment is performed. The interpretations of the results are often done to communicate with other scientists, the effects of the results and future directions from this experiment.

    Communication is important because without it, we cannot truly say that one is knowledgable about their project. In my opinion, if one cannot communicate their ideas, they don’t have a true understanding of them.

    Communication can be broken down into two main types. Communication between Scientists, and Communication between Scientists and the Public. Each of this mediums have similarities and differences. The main difference being is the assumed knowledge of the other party. Between scientists, one can be a little relaxed when explaining because they assume the scientist has an idea of the science behind the experiment. Communicating to the public is a little more difficult, and commands one to have a true mastery of their topic. Being able to essentially break down a scientific concept into digestible bites for the general public is a skill that should be considered a core skill amongst scientists because eventually, the experiments that are done will be communicated to the public, and having that ability should be seeked amongst candidates.

  3. Science communication is an ideal that I think many scientists should educate themselves on before trying to educate others on their respective areas of expertise. Many scientists spend so much time on researching, studying and mastering the many what if questions in life however are unable to properly convey the message or educate others simply because of the fact that they are not communicating properly. For example, I will admit I have sat in on some presentations where I has absolutely no clue how things worked or sometimes what the actual goal of the research is. Sadly, there many people also experience this either because the scientist is using words that are hard to understand or even just failing to show the actual relevance. I feel as though if more scientists educated themselves or try different approaches of communication this barrier would be a thing of the past or we would at least inch closer to eradicating it.

  4. Science Communication was a very prevalent topic in our class in the past week. The common problem is that audiences are skeptical and not always knowledgeable on the scientific topic that is being discussed. Explanation is a big obstacle in science communication. Most scientists just explain complex facts and that can be uninteresting to an uninformed audience. The most important factor in swaying the opinion of a skeptical audience is emotional engagement. Story telling is a great way to incorporate both scientific facts and emotional/ personal background. For me as an aspiring Physician Assistant, I have to learn how to effectively communicate medical procedures and diagnoses to my patients. These patients are going to have so many different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds so I have to make sure that I am explaining everything in a way that is both respectful and easy to understand. The best way to do this is by having compassion for the patient and their situation while simply breaking down the scientific steps at the same time.

  5. It is so common nowadays with the advanced research in our society for scientists to have a solid understanding of a subject but for some reason not be able to share the knowledge in a way for the masses to understand. I do agree it is important for the scientist to understand their findings, but they should also be just as trained on how to effectively translate that information to their peers with and without science backgrounds. The post mentions the challenges that surround communicating topics to different cultures and across varying levels of scientific education because sometimes the wording can be unfamiliar for some people and that when simplifying a topic so much can cause misinterpretation from person to person. However I believe that applying effective communication in the sciences to audiences can lead to more inclusion and diversity in the subject. Audiences that would normally be unfamiliar of certain subjects could now relate and translate the information to others to share the knowledge that the science community wants to get out. Once scientists practice and understand how to communicate effectively, the next step is to get an idea of who the audience is to determine the level of simplicity necessary. Science communication and cultural literacy go hand in hand to create an environment where sharing research is endless.

    • Mariah,
      I completely agree with you that science communication and being able to explain your research findings to both scientists and non-scientists should be part of a scientist’s training. I also believe that being able to non-scientists may also help with people being more trusting of science. I think when people don’t fully understand something, it is hard for them to completely buy into it. This also adds onto your point of increasing the amount of inclusion and diversity on the subject. As scientists, we tend to just want to show data instead of explaining what that data means in a way that everyone can understand. I also think another part of being able to communicate science effectively is understanding the audience of who you are writing to. If we can try and understand how our audience may perceive what we are writing, science may be able to be written in a way that doesn’t seem so scary to people without a science background.

  6. This is my second semester as a public health major. Before I got into public health, I was a pre-nursing major. I thought these majors had relevance, but they are different like mom and dad or oil and water. My focus is not just on providing care or services to individuals anymore. We’re learning about policy, health systems, systematic disparities due to history, etc., and politics has a lot to do with what we will be doing, which is not exciting for me at all. It is crucial that I see things in different perspectives, understand other people’s viewpoints, and I also need to know history and current politics to a certain degree because public health professionals need funding and support from the government. Georgia has a very unique setting for public health professionals. People here are extremely nice and very stubborn at the same time. We have many challenges because we have a good combination of progressive and conservative people living here in GA. The place itself has a very strong historic background, and certain things just don’t seem to be able to get resolved… Not even for the better future for all of us including our next generations. That makes me very sad sometimes. Additionally, it is very beautiful to have passions for helping others lead happy and health lives, but we need to make things happen, so we always have to think of how to get funding. This is not an easy task! In order for us to make our population’s dreams reality -equal health care & opportunities for all, it is very necessary that we have an excellent communication skills to first understand our population’s language, life, their needs, and to figure out ways to help them. Secondly, we need to make their voices heard by the important decision makers and leaders in our society. In order for us to do that, we must know our leaders’ thoughts and concerns before going to them to ask for money. We need to keep in mind that our leaders come from different backgrounds as well. The process has multiple layers. We need both scientific expertise and wisdom beyond textbooks to make things happen and minimize controversies.

  7. The article points on one of the biggest issue of science nowadays, that unfortunately is not universally recognized as a big obstacle. A good communication would help both researchers, making more visible their own research and so potentially achieving more fundings, and the general public, improving knwoledgment and literacy, thus making more reliable some choice (both political and personal) which in turn affects the whole society. (e.g. if I know about the plastic vortexes, their causes and consequences, I will avoid to throw plastic bags or bottles improperly).
    Anyway, I feel that teaching how to effectively communicate science is something lacking in academia, and you have, somehow, to learn by yourself to do that. I never attended a “science communication” class, because there was no one and I honestly never felt this topic as emerging in importance (at least up to few years ago). As a Ph.D. student, I’m still learing by myself how to improve my communication skills. It happens, for instance, when friends or kins out of my field, ask me “Specifically, what are you doing in your university?”. As highlithed in the last part fo the article, the secret to be a good communicator is to understand how a specific audience think, and target your message to such kind of audience. Maybe could be diffucult, but is something you can learn.
    I think a good scientist should not only be good in reserach, but also in communicating his/her own reserarch: you can handle the “century discovery”, but if you aren’t a good communicator, it will sounds as low-value research outcome. Moreover, still in my opinion, it’s better to avoid as much as possible intermediates in communication: no one besides yourself, knows in details your own reserch topic. And an intermediate (i.e. a journalist), even with a scientific background, could potentially misunderstand your outcomes and aims.

  8. This article, “Science Communication and Cultural Literacy” evoked a few reactions from me, a future scientist and researcher, upon reading it. One of the first things that stuck out to me shortly after reading the title and article, was the belief or almost idea that many in the public have that scientists are truly not the best with communication with people outside of their field. On of my first assignments for Leadership in Biology, I was assigned an article titled,”Why Scientists should have Leadership Skills” by Rowan Brookes, Susie Ho, and Bob Wong(2017) in which they mentioned that individuals from science backgrounds sometimes lack in interpersonal skills. Both of these statements or opinions are ones I understand and would have to agree with others perception of those in the STEM field, but personally I would encourage others to question why it is some scientist are such bad communicators.
    Scientists are considered those who are on the forefront in terms of technological advances and the communicators to the public of any and all information that could impact their everyday life, and with this role comes accommodations for how to best play this role. Long story short, the science field is by no means “simple” or easy to grasp for everyone similarly as most things are. The pressure to explain anything new can be confusing to understand initially, so there are likely many individuals out there who speak to crowds in the exact manner mentioned in this article, but there are also those like myself, who are more worried to even give the speech out loud.
    I am currently in a Honors Thesis at Georgia State where I do research on the mating behaviors of convict cichlids alongside my mentor, and doing such requires me to give presentations of my work to faculty and attendees of conferences at school, and it makes me nervous to say the least. Despite my ability to discern different sections of the brain and use probes of DNA to visualize genes expressed in these regions, I find it can be a struggle mentally preparing myself to give the speech or presentation and worry that the dictation itself will not be able to thoroughly explain my work at times.
    I believe communication is absolutely vital in how ideas are explained to others, but I believe some can struggle with how to best convey this information. Depending on the type of person some may feel more comfortable using somewhat strange vernacular and terms to those explain their findings and others like me may use terms more lax, but still descriptive of my work in order for my own comfortability and to not feel as disjointed from those hearing my presentation. I believe the problem herein lies in the fact that people tend to enjoy their comfort zones and after dedicating so much time and resources to pursue such fields can be one of the downfalls of playing the role of scientist in society and is the primary reason for this trend that requires adjustment.

    • Nice meeting you Lola, I really like what you wrote. I’m a budding Sci-Fi writer and I enjoy reading stories and learning about others because they provide me inspiration for my writings. I love how you approached the subject and explained it, bringing to the forefront your unique experience about it. I also must say I agree with you about your point on the comfort zone. This is very very important and I’ve never seen it used to explain the poor communication skills of scientists. I think you’re right. This is how I see it now after reading your comment. Scientists are bright individuals, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to be scientists. So why are they poor communicators? Because they are not trained and are not required to speak to the general public, so doing so takes them outside their comfort zone. This is a brilliant idea on your side and it should be food for thought for everyone and especially scientists. Understanding what you say might help them to get out of their comfort zone and convince them to start speaking an easy science language that may appeal to everyone and not just scientists. You deserve many compliments on the way you think, write and express yourself. I wish I could meet you and have a nice conversation with you. I’m glad I got to know you through this blog. Keep up the good work. I don’t know what convict cichlids are but I’ll look them up, I’m sure they must be fascinating if you do your research on them. Namaste.

  9. Roberta Attanasio’s article points out the importance of science communication. Popularization of science is imperative to improve the public’s scientific literacy, which influences economy, scientific technology, and social development. Scientists play a critical role in popularizing science. For scientists, popularization of science is a process of propagation. Scientists allow the audiences to understand their thoughts and persuade them to support their studies. For the general public, popularization of science satisfies their curiosity, and it has a positive impact on the young generations.

    The issue is that it is a tough task to popularize science. It is a discipline and art to guarantee both literariness and scientificalness during communication. It should be true and serious when communicating about science because they are the basic principles of science. Meanwhile, it must be easy to understand and funny since the communicatee are non-scientists.

    The author mentions the problem in use of wording and explanations. It is one major issue in communicating science. Both scientists and the audiences have cognitions of certain objects. Even though there are circumstances that the audiences do not know certain objects, they have the ability to understand the definitions or descriptions of the objects. The difference is that scientists have a deep understanding on the objects and they need to guide the audiences to know better about the objects. It is insufficient to acquire relevant skills from books. Scientists require to combine their knowledge with diverse cultural backgrounds as the author says culture is an important factor in communicating science.

    There is a long way to go to achieve a better way of communicating science. The efforts that scientists make are not limited in the field of science.

  10. I agree deeply with importance of communication in STEM mentioned in this article. It is too often that I am straining to understand the complex language being given to me during seminar presentations and scientific papers outside of my field because I, like many other STEM students, was trained to understand data given in my field but not how to effectively communicate it. Science should be something easier to communicate so that anyone in or outside of your STEM field can understand it. This is especially important in different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds as it creates a gap in who can accurately process the data that is being given. This is critical since a lot of policy and law makers do not have a lot of background in the STEM resulting in the need for effective communication to obtain the best outcome. Another important example is a doctor being able to explain the importance of vaccines to a patient without any background in science at all to let them make the most informed decision possible. I also believe that communication is a very important skill that STEM students are learning too late. As a master’s student and TA, I continuously struggle with EFFECTIVELY communicating information to my students and peers. In a very diverse school like Georgia State University, there has also been several times when I had to adjust my teaching or communication style to be applicable to people of different backgrounds. Though I am still struggling with communicating effectively, this was one of the best skills I have learned not only because it helps me reach people of different backgrounds, but because it helps me build my communication skills to improve my leadership capabilities. The way I see it, in science, we should not communicate in a way of “one size fit all”, but in a way where words are tailored to fit each person individually.

    • Wow, you have some very practical points with real-life examples! I want to add that people/patients nowadays are very knowledgeable due to improved technology. However, it is our job to make sure that they use accurate and reliable sources -us, professionals! And yes, we need to understand where they are coming from and familiarize ourselves with their cultural practices to provide best care and services. Cultural & emotional competencies, and abilities to collaborate with other professional & non-professional caregivers including family members and volunteers are key characteristics needed for tomorrow’s health professionals.

    • I agree; however, as noted in the second point in the third paragraph it is also important to underline how the average person comes into contact with scientific literature and interpretations. Most likely, the majority of people come into contact with science via the filters of mass media and thus the information that arrives has already been interpreted, and many times poorly interpreted, taking for granted the information presented with no critical thought to the information and interpretation. All of this results from the aforementioned initial issue of scientific communication.

  11. When reading the “Why scientists need to be better communicators,” which was the first link in this post, the one sentence that stuck with me was: “As scientists, we are generally passionate and more than happy to talk about our work. In fact, sometimes, we are too excited and this leads to long, rambling conversations and terrible first dates” I related to this sentence all too well and I am one of the survivors of this. Sometimes I forget that when I talk about the work I do, I tend to assume that people already know what I am talking about, and that everyone is familiar with this particular field of biology. Using terminology that people don’t understand or aren’t familiar with can turn people off from not just science, but you as well. That’s why learning how to communicate more effectively with people and other scientists is a must for science, because some scientist’s skill set and communication skills don’t always match one another. Just because a scientist isn’t a good communicator doesn’t mean he/she is a bad scientist. It just means that communication skills need to be better, not the science. In fact, I have first hand experience with this. When I had to prepare a presentation for a conference, I began making my presentation based off the fact that everyone at this conference would know the terminology, methods and data analysis. When I gave mock presentations to colleagues, a lot of them had a hard time following what the presentation was based off of and said that it was too “sciencey.” After going back to the drawing board I began to make the presentation based off: “ok how can I make this interesting while making sense,” and I began to make the presentation based off of the fact that the audience had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, so I made the data a lot more digestible and engaging. Come of the day of my presentation, I was nervous about so many things going wrong and nobody liking it, but when the presentation was done and it was time for Q&A, I was unprepared for how well people liked it. I even got to exchange information with people because they wanted to talk more about the methods I did so that they could try and implement it for their ongoing studies. Long story short, when I put in the extra effort to put into my communication skills, I unexpectedly got great results, which is why I believe scientists should value and work on their communication skills just as they do their work and research.

    • This is awesome Michael. Thank you for sharing. I wish everyone would take the time to reorganize a presentation to make it more appealing to everyone. Congratulations for your success with this experience. Is there anyway to find your presentation on YouTube? One more thing to consider is that science is global and many conferences’ participants come from all over the world, and speak different languages. Keeping it simple and understandable also helps those whose first language is not English. I know I can read and write English with no problems, and I can have nice conversations in English, but often I’ve a hard time following scientific presentations. It oculd also be because I’m not able to pay enough attention to them when the speaker is very technical and therefore boring. There are instances in which technical language is necessary, but more often than not you can get the significance and results of a study across in easy to understand words. Wish you great success in all your future work and your life!

  12. This article touches on a subject that I too think is very important for scientists of the future. Being able to perform research and understand the findings is one thing, but being able to convey the findings to a large set of people is just as important. Scientific discoveries only become important when others begin to notice how important they are. For instance, if a team of scientists have evidence that shows that a certain diet is unhealthy, opposed to popular belief, they need to be able to convey that message in order for the discovery to have an impact. A big issue with that, as stated in the article, is that communication and word meaning varies across different ethnicity, even if the language spoken is the same. I have seen that scientist now are coming from more varied backgrounds than before, which is good for several reasons, but is especially important since it will allow for easier and more effective communication of scientific ideas across varying ethnic and cultural groups.

    • Nicholas, I agree that this topic is significant for future scientists as well. Growing up in the late 80’s and 90’s, the internet was not as robust or as easy to access. The majority of articles or books available in the library about scientific topics were written like a foreign language to me and it was frustrating so I can personally relate with your comment. Ironically, this piqued my interest in science because I wanted to be able to understand more about the causes of diseases or how gene therapy worked. Regarding your example about explaining the unhealthy diet to people who may oppose the message, I agree the message should be conveyed in a way that a person who does not have a scientific background can understand. I believe the explanation of the evidence should use real world examples and common words that are relatable across cultural backgrounds as you stated to have an impact. The article states,”it is not what you say, it is what you hear” which is ultimately a key thought future and current scientists must constantly remember when preparing written and oral presentations for the general public and also other scientists.

    • Hi Nicholas,

      I completely agree with your statement regarding how communication impacts the relevance of scientific discoveries. Often, people disregard significant breakthroughs because of a lack of understanding. This is where communication comes in. Successful scientists tend to have strong communication skills that can be used to convey complicated information to people who do not have any type of scientific background. Effective communication is the key to helping others understand and to make sure everyone is on the same page. As you have mentioned in your comment, many life-saving discoveries would otherwise be ignored if the strength of other scientist’s commutation is low. With the various backgrounds that scientists come from, communication skills have to be strong in order to convey important information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *