Science Communication

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Goals of Science Communication

Burns, Terry W., D. John O'Connor, and Susan M. Stocklmayer. "Science communication: a contemporary definition." Public understanding of science 12.2 (2003): 183-202.


Public Trust in Vaccines


Deficit Model

Many researchers in science communication identify a shift in their field away from a "deficit model." Why does the public not support the guidance of science? The "deficit model" sees the problem as entirely one of ignorance or confusion:

"Historically, science communication has been predicated on the assumption that ignorance is the basis of a lack of societal support for various issues in science and technology.[1]

This approach identified the problems of science communication in what the public lacks: scientific knowledge. Given this diagnosis, the natural "cure" was to focus science communication on filling the gaps in understanding through presentations, TV programs, or public lectures.

These researchers see this approach to science communication as problematic. Controversies over science occur not because citizens lack understanding, they say, but because of a variety of other factors. This is supported by studies that find, for example, that there is a low correlation between how well individuals understand the science of evolution and whether they profess to "believe" in it.

If not ignorance or confusion, what else explains public opposition to science or science-based policy? Critics of the deficit model, such as Matthew C. Nisbet, point to a variety of social factors that studies have found can explain a majority of the variation in views on science:

...the assumptions of the deficit model cut against the conclusions of several decades of research in the area. For example, a recent meta-analysis shows that science literacy only accounts for a small fraction of the variance in how lay publics form opinions about controversial areas of science[2]. Far stronger influences on opinion derive from value dispositions such as ideology, partisanship, and religious identity.[3]

Some researchers, such as Nisbet, favor other more "democratic" forms of dialogue with the public. Still others see an important role in filling the "deficit" of knowledge through traditional science communication, but believe that much more needs to be done.[4] Still other science communicators defend the traditional role of science communication.[5]

While the prescriptive side of things remains controversial, the descriptive side seems more settled. Empirical research shows that knowledge predicts a relatively small amount of the variation in support for various scientific policies or initiatives. Because of this there is a limited amount that improving knowledge itself can accomplish.


"Despite increasing attention to new directions in public engagement, a still-dominant assumption among many scientists and policymakers is that when controversies over science occur, ignorance is at the root of public opposition." [6]

"Science communication initiatives are therefore directed at filling in the ‘deficit’ in knowledge, with the hope that if members of the public only understood the scientific facts, they would be more likely to see the issues as experts do. The strategy is thus to inform the public by way of popular science outlets such as television documentaries, science magazines, newspaper science coverage and more recently science websites and blogs." [6]

"Over the past few years, there have been signs of a gradual shift in how the scientific community in the United States views public engagement. One can detect a growing recognition that effective communication requires initiatives that sponsor dialogue, trust, relationships, and public participation across a diversity of social settings and media platforms. Yet despite notable new directions, many communication efforts continue to be based on ad-hoc, intuition-driven approaches, paying little attention to several decades of interdisciplinary research on what makes for effective public engagement. Many of these initiatives start with the false premise that deficits in public knowledge are the central culprit driving societal confl ict over science, when in fact, science literacy has only a limited role in shaping public perceptions and decisions." [3]

Alternate Approaches


"There is growing awareness among science organizations that if they want to be more effective at using the media to communicate with a diversity of audiences, they need to switch the frame—or interpretative lens—by which they communicate about a scientific topic, such as evolution, stem cell research or nanotechnology27. Instead of relying on personal experience or anecdotal observation, it is necessary to carry out careful audience research to determine which frames work across intended audiences. Communication is both an art and a science. For example, the US National Academies (Washington, DC) used focus groups and polling to inform the structure of a written report about the teaching of evolution and to plan publicity efforts. Their research indicated that an effective storyline for translating the relevance of evolutionary science for students was one emphasizing the connection to advances in modern medicine. Contrary to their expectations, the research concluded that an alternative frame emphasizing recent court decisions did not provide nearly as effective a message.

Yet turning to audience research requires a delicate balance on the part of science organizations. Any reframing of an issue needs to remain true to the state of the underlying science. For example, in promoting human embryonic stem cell research around the ‘hope for cures’, some advocates have given the false impression that available therapies are just a few years away, an interpretation that puts public trust at risk. Similarly, some industry advocates have re-framed food biotech as a moral quest to improve global food security, but their promise of ‘putting an end to world hunger’ dramatically oversimplifies a complex problem."[6]

See Public Trust in Vaccines for critiques of the framing literature in science communication.


"Current initiatives toward public education and involvement are presented as representing democratic reforms and being more inclusionary than past efforts, yet remain based on the deficit model, which research has shown to be insufficient. On this matter, then, there needs to be continued investment in public dialog initiatives, such as deliberative forums and consensus conferences. Yet, importantly, the focus of these deliberative exercises should be an honest effort at relationship- and trust-building rather than persuasion, with mechanisms for actively incorporating the input of lay participants into decision-making." [6]


  1. Simis, Molly J., et al. "The lure of rationality: Why does the deficit model persist in science communication?." Public understanding of science 25.4 (2016): 400-414.
  2. Allum, Nick, et al. "Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: a meta-analysis." Public understanding of science 17.1 (2008): 35-54.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Nisbet, Matthew C., and Dietram A. Scheufele. "What's next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions." American journal of botany 96.10 (2009): 1767-1778.
  4. Suldovsky, Brianne. "In science communication, why does the idea of the public deficit always return? Exploring key influences." Public Understanding of Science 25.4 (2016): 415-426.
  5. Dickson, David. "The case for a ‘deficit model’of science communication." SciDev. net 27 (2005).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Bubela, Tania, et al. "Science communication reconsidered." Nature biotechnology 27.6 (2009): 514-518.