Understanding new ways to communicate science online

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

By Wendy Philpott

When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened in 2011, a group of citizens organized to collect radiation readings to share with residents in the area. That group became Safecast, an international volunteer citizen science group dedicated to generating accurate open data on the environment.

Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher

“The public would never have had access to such information during Chernobyl or Three Mile Island,” says Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, a professor of English specializing in the rhetoric of science. “Safecast is an exemplar of citizen science groups that harness the internet to gather and make relevant data accessible.”

The growth of citizen science is one case where we see how the rise of the internet has fueled public engagement with science, says Mehlenbacher. “Likewise, scientists themselves are engaging much more directly with broad publics through online platforms such as blogs, crowdfunding sites, and open-access databases.” When it’s done well, she says, science communication online offers novel and accessible ways for the public to engage with—not simply consume—scientific research.

Doing science communication well is crucial when it comes to problems like climate change denial and the surging anti-vaccination movement. “As science and technology continue to permeate our lives,” says Mehlenbacher, “scientists and technologists are increasingly implicated in the discussions. So, are we having technical or democratic discussions? It depends, and we need to understand the difference.”

Her expertise in rhetorical studies of science shows researchers and students, including hundreds of students here at Waterloo, how to “think about the broader context in which their work is situated and how they can address issues of audience, credibility, and trust in a particular situation.”

Trans-scientific communication bridges research and public conversations

Book cover for "Science Communication Online"

In Mehlenbacher’s book, Science Communication Online: Engaging Experts and Publics on the Internet,  published by The Ohio State University Press this spring, she takes a deep dive into “trans-scientific” genres online — including blogs, crowdfunding, and databases. The term trans-science comes from nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg who coined it to express the notion that there are scientific questions that science alone cannot answer. The book shows how online genres adapt features of both professional science communication with popular forms to offer new ways for researchers and members of the public to engage on issues relevant in science and society.

As a resource for anyone—scientists, students, or interested citizens—the book helps readers understand how rhetorical elements of communication can enable better conversations about science and technology. For instance, Mehlenbacher looks at the science-focused crowdfunding site Experiment and explains how its research funding pitches are modelled on a set of argument “moves” established by genre scholar John Swales to effectively communicate the research project’s context, significance, and contribution. Combined with popular science features that promote or market the work, “these moves in online proposals respond to the growing expectation that science should be embedded in an ongoing public conversation focused on a current problem that offers a novel solution.”

Training the next generations of scientists and technologists to engage

Understanding how the communication landscape is changing for science is important as we train new generations working in both scientific and related interdisciplinary fields. Mehlenbacher recently helped to design the new communication courses for Waterloo students in STEM disciplines (replacing the English Language Proficiency Exam). “These courses offer an important intervention early on in a student’s career to help them understand argumentation norms in their field, as well as how different fields create knowledge. In addition to traditional genres of science communication, understanding the nuances of science communication in online spaces will give students an advantage whether they become research scientists, clinical professionals, or industry scientists.”

Mehlenbacher’s research and teaching activity includes membership in interdisciplinary campus groups such as the Science and Technology in Society Teaching Group, The Games Institute, and the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute. Her current research, supported by an Ontario Early Researcher Award and SSHRC Insight Grant, includes interviews with STEM researchers and citizen scientists to investigate how expertise is assessed within multidisciplinary teams.

Science Communication Online: Engaging Experts and Publics on the Internet can be downloaded free as an open access copy under a Creative Commons license.