In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science Communication

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • History
  • New Communication Channels
  • Practical Advice

Communication Science Communication
Sharon Dunwoody
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0031


Science-communication scholarship focuses on the hows, whys, and impacts of science messages aimed at nonscientific audiences. This popular audience emphasis distinguishes science communication from technical communication, which privileges audiences who work within scientific disciplines and who can negotiate the languages relevant to those disciplines. Science communication, in contrast, assumes an audience without expertise and, importantly, without a priori interest in the topic at hand. Thus, the field places great emphasis on aspects of messages that explain complex concepts and processes, that lure audiences through narrative—both verbal and visual—and that attend to the complex interplay of evidence with other variables that influence lay audiences’ understanding of such things as controversial science issues. Since most audiences are quite removed from the scientific arena, this field has invested heavily in studying the role of mediated science messages—those narratives carried in mass media channels such as newspapers, television, radio, and now the Internet. That, in turn, has led to a large literature on the nature of relationships among the primary actors in the generation of those messages: scientists and information providers such as science journalists. In addition, the sustained global investment in science has led scientists and societies at large to problematize science literacy, and that has catalyzed much research on the effects of popularized science messages on individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, and (rarely) behaviors. The sections that follow will focus on research that speaks to these issues. This entry tries to avoid studies of environmental or health communication, despite the obvious overlap. It also avoids book chapters, which are harder for users to access. The entry also includes a number of important products generated by scholars outside of the United States but, regretfully, does not include work published in languages other than English. Rather than chop the literature into “hot topics” (i.e., nanotechnology, genetically modified food, stem cells), this entry categorizes by concepts and processes.

General Overviews

Overviews of the field of science communication have proliferated in recent years. While one can find the rare synthesis of available research, as in Weingold 2001, and the even more rare critical essayist in Dornan 1990, other contributions such as Brossard, et al. 2007 and Friedman, et al. 1988 work within a topical scaffolding. Several of the newer entries such as Bucchi and Trench 2008, Cheng, et al. 2008, and Kahlor and Stout 2010 articulate as their raison d’être the maturation of the field, a process that they feel now calls for the creation of a distinct subfield of communication. Nisbet and Scheufele 2007 provides a look at communication of modern scientific issues as part of a call to arms to scientists, and National Science Board 2010 reflects a compilation of recent data on public understanding of science in the United States. While Gregory and Miller 1998 was, for many years, the best overview of the public-communication domain, a new volume from the National Academies (Bell, et al. 2009) now holds pride of place and will be heavily cited for years to come.

  • Bell, Philip, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, eds. 2009. Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Mass-media channels are one of many possible learning venues explored in this comprehensive National Academies report. The volume provides an excellent overview of science-communication-research findings.

  • Brossard, Dominique, James Shanahan, and T. Clint Nesbitt, eds. 2007. The media, the public, and agricultural biotechnology. Wallingford, UK: CABI.

    DOI: 10.1079/9781845932046.0000

    Contributors to this volume place popular representations of agricultural biotechnology—primarily those in the mass media—into both theoretical and practical contexts.

  • Bucchi, Massimiano, and Brian Trench, eds. 2008. Handbook of public communication of science and technology. London: Routledge.

    This text makes an argument for science communication as a distinct intellectual domain, and its international cast of chapter authors tries to build a map of the field.

  • Cheng, Donghong, Michel Claessens, Nicholas Gascoigne, Jenni Metcalfe, Bernard Schiele, and Shi Shunke, eds. 2008. Communicating science in social contexts: New models, new practices. New York: Springer.

    This product of scholars active in the international network Public Communication of Science and Technology seeks to revisit existing theoretical models and to suggest both modified and new ones for science-communication research.

  • Dornan, Christopher. 1990. Some problems in conceptualizing the issue of “science and the media.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 7.1:48–71.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295039009360163

    The essay calls into question the assumptions underlying what the author calls “the dominant discourse on science and the media” and argues that it has worked not only to promote media science coverage that privileges scientific interests but also to inhibit critical appraisal of science and of popular science communication.

  • Friedman, Sharon M., Sharon Dunwoody, and Carol L. Rogers, eds. 1988. Scientists and journalists: Reporting science as news. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    One of the earlier overviews of science journalism in the United States, this volume reflects on research and commentary from both researchers and practitioners.

  • Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. 1998. Science in public: Communication, culture, and credibility. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

    The two authors seek to provide a broad look at what publics think of science, what scientists think of publics, and how media coverage of science brings the two into the same orbit.

  • Kahlor, LeeAnn, and Patricia A. Stout, eds. 2010. Communicating science: New agendas in communication. New York: Routledge.

    A conference featuring the work of young, promising science-communication scholars in the United States was the catalyst for this book.

  • National Science Board. 2010. Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. NSB 10-01. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

    Chapter 7 of this massive volume provides a useful synthesis of much recent data on public interest in, knowledge of, and attitudes about science in the United States. These overviews are published every two years, and the user will find earlier versions on the National Science Foundation website as well, making comparisons over time possible.

  • Nisbet, Matthew C., and Dietram A. Scheufele. 2007. The future of public engagement. The Scientist 21.10: 171–192.

    Scientists must learn how to frame their work for public consumption, according to these two researchers, who provide analysis of research results from such arenas as stem-cell research, plant biotechnology, and nanotechnology in service to their case.

  • Weigold, Michael F. 2001. Communicating science: A review of the literature. Science Communication 23.2: 164–193.

    DOI: 10.1177/1075547001023002005

    The author organizes this overview of the science-communication research literature around the main actors, among them news organizations and journalists, public relations practitioners, and scientists.

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