By: Christopher Worthington

An ongoing conversation between scientists and the public has always been important (think of the polio vaccine rollout and the Apollo moon missions, for instance). The COVID-19 pandemic brought this conversation to a new height of significance and scrutiny—suddenly, people relied on scientists to relay vital, potentially life-saving information.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that NIH has a checklist for communicating science and health research to the public. The suggestions on this list can help prospective writers describe their work to the public. Recommendations from the checklist include:

  • Provide perspective for the study and explain the context
  • Do not overstate the importance or significance of a study, finding, or situation
  • • Use clear language to describe the science and only use conditional language when appropriate
  • • Convey information respectfully—do not stigmatize or assign blame
  • • Provide the original study by linking to PubMed or other reliable sources
  • Note funding sources and potential conflicts of interest

Speaking of clear language (the third bullet point above), the Federal Plain Language Guidelines are another resource for any type of writing, including communicating science to the public. Scientific research is often technical and complex, but it is possible to convey meaningful, accurate information to a lay audience without using indecipherable jargon and shoddy construction.

The University of Oxford has long recognized the importance of communicating science to the public and even has a staff position dedicated to it: the Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science. Marcus du Sautoy, who currently holds this post, told Scientific American:

“I think communication should be a fundamental part of any scientist’s training as frankly it benefits your own science. Science, in my mind, has always been about two things, discovery and communication. As scientists we have to learn how to emphasize with a public audience for them to fully understand and to acknowledge the ideas we are seeing. The broader audience science can reach, the bigger the benefit in terms of the new ideas you are transmitting as a scientist.”

Finally, do not get discouraged. Writing is hard work! A 2021 Nature Medicine article titled “How to be a good science communicator” described science communication as more of an art than a science. Like any art, it takes practice.

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