As the pursuit of the big picture, synthesis research has much to offer in terms of insights that can be helpful to decision-making. Building that bridge between science and solutions requires good science communication.
But along with that opportunity can come challenges, says Francisco Guerrero, science communication liaison between NCEAS and the nonprofit COMPASS, which cultivates scientific leadership through training and network building.
“Synthesis science is a monumental effort. You really want to understand the forest, and you focus a little bit less on the trees. But the point with engagement is you really need to pay attention to what's happening with the trees as well,” said Guerrero.
Guerrero is both a human bridge and coach. He helps to keep an open exchange between the science happening at NCEAS and the network of journalists and policymakers of COMPASS, which can help synthesis science get into stories and decisions.
He also provides training and coaching in science communication to NCEAS working groups and resident researchers to help them to find their voice, hone their listening skills, and facilitate more productive conversations that can lead to science-informed change.
Guerrero shared four mental hurdles that commonly hold synthesis researchers back from realizing their true science communication potential and what he thinks they can do to get over them.
Find shortcuts to go the extra mile
Science communication can seem like extra work, an extra mile that can be especially unappealing for those participating in synthesis research projects, which are often done on top of normal workloads and professional obligations.
Something Guerrero hopes scientists can appreciate more is that, in doing synthesis research, they are already producing some low-hanging fruits that can go a long way in helping them communicate the importance of their research.
“Through that process, they develop such a richness of communication assets,” said Guerrero.
For example, proposals, data visualizations, even stories from their experiences working together can all be reused as engagement tools to shortcut the work of science communication.
Guerrero stresses that it’s also important to be strategic about the assets you share. Consider what messages will make them matter and which channels will help you connect with the people who really need to hear them.
Pro tip: A press release may not be the biggest bang for your buck, bringing us to the next point.
Think less about your audience and more about people
One of the best things Guerrero thinks researchers can do to be strategic is to think less about audiences and more about people.
“When you say audience, you probably picture an auditorium and people sitting there. And the work of engagement is about connecting with people,” said Guerrero. “If you want to have a real impact, you need to connect with people.”
For example, Guerrero explains that many researchers say the audience they want to reach is journalists or policymakers, but they don’t actually know any personally.
“Start getting to know people more. From those conversations, you can find ways in which you can add value, which is basically the goal of your communication strategy. The only way to know that is by having conversations with people,” said Guerrero.
The best communicators, says Guerrero, don’t have a magic wand. They start small, listen a lot, and are able to scale up their ability to make relationships.
Particular to synthesis research is the importance of using local examples that bring home the big picture for the people with whom you want to connect. For example, a current working group is synthesizing which biodiversity elements, including species, contribute to human well-being around the globe, and understanding the local context where these species are relevant will matter.
“Imagine being interviewed by an international journalist who disagrees with the species selected for their country, that would be a bummer,” said Guerrero.
Get comfortable outside of the peer-reviewed box
Another hurdle holding researchers back from science communication, ironically, is the holy grail of science: a high-profile paper.
“Synthesis science normally results in high profile papers. Every scientist dreams of having a paper like that, and that then becomes basically the only goal for many of them,” said Guerrero.
That drive will often prevent scientists from engaging in timely conversations about their research topics if their paper isn’t published yet. This can become a missed opportunity particularly when those topics are urgent – the recent dominance of wildfires and public health in public dialogue are stark examples.
To ease the worry researchers might feel about sharing scientific insights before the paper comes out, Guerrero urges them to not forget a crucial value of synthesis science: it is about standing on the shoulders of giants.
“Synthesis science is building on science that has been going on for a really long time. So, they do have a strong base there already,” said Guerrero.
Believe in yourself
Sometimes part and parcel to the previous point is one thing that has surprised Guerrero in working with researchers: the prevalence of imposter syndrome. Many researchers, especially those early in their careers, lack confidence to communicate about their research and feel uncomfortable in the leadership position that synthesis puts them in.
“You are putting together so many threads from so much research that’s been done in the past that you're at the [cutting] edge. So that makes you a leader naturally,” encouraged Guerrero.
Aside from owning your leadership, Guerrero’s remedy for curing imposter syndrome includes preparing yourself early. Find opportunities to strengthen your voice and build your confidence, whether it’s investing in a science communication training or merely not waiting until the last minute to put together a presentation.
“If you are more strategic about it and take advantage of all the opportunities and tools being developed by the science of science communication, I do believe that will help,” said Guerrero.