Communicating Science to the Public: Context and Curiosity

March 29, 2018

Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D.
Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D.

Dear Colleagues,

We all share our research progress each day, whether through peer-reviewed journal articles, lectures, tweets, or dinner table chats. In our interactions, it is important that we use clear language to convey the exciting advances we are achieving in arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases.

Each of our varied audiences poses unique communication challenges, whether they be scientists and clinicians, students, policy makers, journalists, patients and caregivers or friends and family. Plain language is a powerful tool to explain our role in “turning discovery into health” – the NIH’s tagline – as we demonstrate transparency and accountability in how we spend taxpayer dollars. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 directs federal agencies to clearly communicate in ways the public can understand and use. Plain language is a priority at NIAMS and across the federal government.

As we work together to highlight our scientific progress and underscore how our research impacts human health, it’s key that we accurately convey our progress. NIH offers many resources on clear communication. Keep these tips in mind when sharing your research with wide-ranging audiences:

  • Provide perspective for your work. Explain the context surrounding the research and how it fits into what we already know. Consider focusing on your scientific process and progress, rather than on a single study.
  • Clearly state whether research findings indicate or suggest associations or cause and effect.
  • Avoid overinterpreting the importance of your results. Don’t use hype words – miracle, breakthrough, game-changer or paradigm shift – as they may unintentionally give false hope.
  • Discuss both the positive and negative effects of any potential treatment or intervention. When talking about a treatment’s risk, focus on absolute risk rather than relative risk. Relative risk can unduly amplify the real risk.
  • Let your passion and curiosity shine. Showing your excitement and sense of discovery helps people understand the process of science and that new findings often lead to new questions to explore.

Please use and share NIH’s extensive communications resources. These include a plain language website, a checklist for communicating science and health research to the public and tools such as a printable infographic that explains clinical study types (available in both English and Spanish). I recommend reading an article by Dr. Jon R. Lorsch, Director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, on Avoiding Hype and Enhancing Awareness in Science Communication. This post summarizes the Workshop on Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype.

Clear communication is a crucial skill that takes time and energy to develop. It's important in helping the public understand the benefits of our research. It's also a key to successful grant applications, journal submissions, teaching presentations and clinical interactions.

Last Reviewed: 02/13/2017