What has trust got to do with it?

Science communicators strive to make science understandable, if not engaging.  Yet, our impact depends on far more than clarity.  When discussing the dangers of climate change or the benefits of a water conservation strategy, we need to have people listening to us, believing us, and heeding what we are saying when they make decisions.  In other words, we need people to trust us.

Trust, according to research in marketing, reflects our perceptions of someone’s competence and their benevolence.  We ask ourselves, does this person know what they are talking about, and are they inclined to be helpful to me?

It is often hard for members of our audience to tell if we are truly competent because we often know more about the topic than they do.  There is rarely a test that they can run beyond checking our track record or relying on our reputation.  Similarly, how can they assess if we will be helpful to their cause or aligned with their values?  Yet, people decide whom to trust every day.  Theorists suggest that these assessments of trust occur through a series of cycles propelled by inferences.

Renowned organizational behaviour theorist, Prof Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School, proposed a ‘ladder of inference’ model to describe the steps that we take to make decisions.  His ladder includes: (1) selective attention; (2) recall of seemingly relevant experiences; (3) making assumptions; (4) inferring outcomes based on the observations and assumptions; and, finally, (5) acting on our conclusions.

A similar process in the course of ‘experiential learning’ was identified by well-known educational theorist, Prof David Kolb.  Kolb noted that we go through learning cycles that involve a concrete experience, observation and reflection on what happened, efforts to generalise from these events, and development of experiments to undertake – employing new strategies that might gain the outcomes that we want.

The study of rhetoric adds consideration of logic, emotion, and character to the mix.  Discourse analysis and linguistics bring in assessment of person, information, and the nature of the interaction, including its ritual elements.   In other words, actor, text, and context.

These theories suggest that a decision on whether to trust someone results from multi-step, cyclic processes involving selective attention, judgments about whom and what are relevant – where emotions can play a role — and inferred conclusions.  That makes the job of a science communicator a lot more than just being ‘clear’.  Trust me …

Want to know more?  The ASC NSW chapter has asked me to host a roundtable discussion early in 2011 with ‘experts’ on trust from a range of fields, far beyond ‘the usual suspects’.  Trust is an area that is ripe for discussion and research.  Stay tuned for details.|

Will Rifkin, PhD
Director, Science Communication Program
willrifkin [at] unsw.edu.au

“What services do science institutions really need from a science communication company?”

In collating the replies I’ve allowed some duplication to provide different ways of expressing an idea. I leave one brief yet relevant and guiding reply as the last word.

Some services are specific to science communication companies while others could be provided by general communication and marketing companies. Expect some overlap.

A science communication company can help science institutions to:

  • identify their various audiences and the needs of each audience
  • prepare a communications strategy that involves feedback from their audience (e.g. regular phone surveys; product review, other evaluation methods)
  • provide creative, well-informed help with ways to explain difficult science and science-related concepts to particular audiences (e.g. risk, climate change, uncertainty)
  • develop and deliver the messages and media suited for each audience (e.g. design and content of media releases, websites, social media, exhibitions, all print material, multimedia, public and educational programs, radio, etc)
  • help train scientists to communicate their work, empowering them with the skills and tools needed to engage audiences and key stakeholders
  • edit (e.g. putting together the Strategic Plan and proofing)
  • prepare a communications plan and collateral for a specific event (e.g. science conferences, workshops)

Thanks to Sarah Lau (ASC National Secretary and Media and Communications Coordinator, ChemCentre), Clare Mullen (Industry Liaison and Communication Manager, Climate and Water Division, Bureau of Meteorology) and Carrie Bengston (Communication Manager, Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics, CSIRO for contributing to the above.

Thanks also to Jenni Metcalfe (Director, Econnect Communication) for pointing me to http://www.econnect.com.au/services.htm for her list of science communication services. Here is my summary of Econnect’s services:

Engaging the community – designing, implementing, analysing and evaluating community and specialised engagement programs

Research – into target audiences trends, issues and recent relevant research

Planning your communication – review, determine and test communication strategies

Building collaborative teams and networks

Training in communication skills – dealing with media, giving presentations or speeches, skills in engaging communities

Writing and publishing – writing stories that reflect the interests and information needs of your audience for various media

Writing for the web – is different to writing for print. Sci-comm staff can join research or field expeditions to write feature articles.

Editing – substantive edit (content, coherence, flow, structure, and suitability of language) or copy edit (correcting errors)

Interpreting science, and natural and cultural attractions – developing exhibitions and interactive displays, visitor centres, walking trails and signage

Managing the media – conference media management, organise and/or promote events, develop and implement media strategies

The last word goes to Julian Cribb (Principal of Julian Cribb & Associates):

“You might add “not waste the public’s money” (by producing science which nobody wants to adopt)”. In reply to my follow-up question, “Do you think many scientific organisations would appreciate and adopt such advice?”, Julian answered, “The ones that care about getting re-funded do!”

Jesse Shore
National President

For Comment: Draft Charter for Science Communication in Australia



  1. Scientific knowledge is the common heritage of all people.
  2. The sharing, or communication, of scientific knowledge is as important as its discovery.
  3. The future of Australia depends on the equitable sharing and rapid adoption of sound scientific knowledge.
  4. Scientific knowledge should be communicated as truthfully, ethically, fairly and widely as practical for the benefit of Australia.
  5. The future of Australian science depends on its ability to shape itself to the needs, values and standards of Australians.
  6. The interests of the Australian people are higher than those of any individual, scientific institution, funding agency, commercial entity or government body.

Code of practice

Science communicators hold the future in our hands. We help to move the new knowledge generated by scientists to the people who need and will use it.  We spread awareness of new insights into Australia, humanity and the world we live in. We educate, inform, stimulate, challenge, inspire and warn. We are agents of change, transmitters of new technologies, heralds of ideas for a sustainable and prosperous society. We also help scientists to understand the needs and wishes of our society, so their science may serve it better.

We are professional communicators, journalists, writers and authors, teachers, lecturers, scientists and technologists, engineers, social scientists . We value scientific knowledge for itself and for the benefits it can bring society, and we recognise the potential harm it can cause if misapplied.

[J1] As science communicators we commit ourselves to:

  1. Communicate science truthfully, factually and professionally in the interests of all Australians
  2. Communicate science as widely as possible, in order to promote the useful, safe and rapid adoption of new knowledge and technologies for the benefit of Australia.
  3. Recognise that the Australian public through their taxes pay for most science and that their lives may be affected by it.  They are therefore owed a factual report or explanation.
  4. Encourage and assist scientists and scientific organisations to share the new knowledge they have gained through research with Australian governments, industry and the community as widely as possible.
  5. Encourage and assist scientists and other researchers to communicate their work to the public and other audiences in a skilful, informative and respectful fashion.
  6. Encourage scientific institutions to listen closely to community and national opinion about science in order to respond to the needs, wishes and concerns of Australia and promote the useful, rapid and safe adoption of new knowledge
  7. Observe and uphold high professional standards of honesty, integrity and fairness in the communication of science.
  8. Acknowledge that almost all technologies have potential downsides or capacity for misapplication, and communicate these accurately and in a balanced fashion, as well as the potential benefits.
  9. Not permit personal interest, belief, payment, suasion or coercion to undermine our commitment to truthfulness, fairness, balance or professional integrity in communicating science.
  10. Not allow commercial, bureaucratic or other organisational considerations to undermine the principle of providing a fair, truthful and balanced report to the Australian people.

Julian Cribb FTSE
January 30, 2008

[J1]This is a purely optional section, I was just trying to define who a science communicator is.