How researchers get heard
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My Conversation with Faith Kearns

You don’t need to have been subscribed to these emails for long — maybe two weeks — to realize I don’t think about research communications the way other research communicators do. I think most science communications training is worthless, most science communications research is useless for science communications practice, and indeed the dominant model of “science communications” cuts off science from bigger ideas, rewards junk science and hype, and makes researchers and communicators overly dependent on either the intermediary of journalism or Twitter omnipresence for success — both of which are increasingly precarious positions to be in these days.

So of course I gravitate to sci comm rebels and truth-tellers like Faith Kearns.

On the latest episode of Science+Story: The Podcast, I talk with Faith — a scientist and one of the freshest, most penetrating thinkers on science communications practice — about a huge swath of issues facing sci comms practitioners. I’ve wanted to do so for well over a year, but we’ve been waiting until Faith’s new book, “Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement,” was published. It was worth it: “Getting to the Heart of Science Communications” is (among many other things) an argument that the real practice of science communications is and needs to be recognized as risky and emotionally fraught work — which is not something you’re going to learn from taking a message box or improv class

“Getting to the Heart of Science Communications” quotes about 100 science communication practitioners — many who work in NGOs or cooperative extension situations or are in grad school — where sci comms work is often un- or underpaid and the risks of communicating science are much greater (and the protections far less) than for faculty superstars. These practitioners, Faith argues, practice a different kind of science communications — relational instead of performative:

How I think about it is I myself am not standing outside of the work. I’m not there to say to people, “I’m diagnosing you and here’s the ten things that you need to do.” I’m trying to say, “I’m here in this. I know some things. You know some things. How are we going to proceed?” And that kind of work just — it requires an entirely different set of skills that might be grouped under what people would understand as “emotional intelligence” bucket, right?

“Getting to the Heart of Science Communications” dives into what relational sci comms looks like — listening, working with conflict (think climate change) instead of ignoring it, and understanding trauma in the community and not trying to preempt that trauma immediately with a science-based solution lest your solution perpetuate and reopen the trauma. (That last item happened to Faith and was a turning point for her as a science communicator.) Faith believes the field is incorporating some relational dynamics — particularly around community-engaged research — but it has a long way to go:

I do think we’re in a time of reckoning. I do wonder what the future of the field is. I truly do. It was hard to write this without having some deep questions about what we’re doing. … Science will always need to be communicated, right? Like there’s a scientific enterprise and we have to communicate about it. The question to me is just sort of … how and what does that look like, and how satisfying is that work for people, how quickly does it burn them out or not? Can we protect them in the course of doing that work? And asking those questions does change the actual practice, too. So that’s — you know, I don’t have a crystal ball about it, but I do have a lot of questions.

We also talk about doing communications vs. taking on power more directly, how sci comms is now both uncomfortably competitive and still synergistic with journalism, why sci comms practice by practitioners seems to be a blind spot in sci comms research, and Sarah Myhre’s comment that 80% of your attempts to communicate science will have negative impacts on your career.

Buy Faith’s new book (and listen to our conversation, of course).