The Art of Communicating Basic Research

Feb. 2, 2024

Basic research—science for the sake of science—is extremely valuable to the microbiology field. However, it can be more difficult to communicate than applied research, which often has a more immediately evident application to society. The key to communicating basic research is getting the audience to understand the science, particularly through the use of storytelling. While presenting copious hard data to back up conclusions may be appropriate for microbiology colleagues, using a story to enhance understanding of the research topic is better suited for non-microbiologists, whether they be policymakers, students or scientists in other fields.

Fostering understanding through storytelling can enhance your credibility and fuel your connection with your audience. Not only that, but the information needs to stick, which is much easier to do if the audience understands the topic. Achieving this is an essential skill to learn. Techniques to help improve the audience’s understanding include building on what the audience cares about, tailoring communication style and information for each audience and adding a personal touch to contextualize the information. 

Find Common Ground

When presenting a research project, it can be challenging to capture the attention and investment of the audience. For a project focused on host-bacterial symbiosis in a Lucinid clam species, why should the audience care about clams in general, let alone this particular clam species and the bacterial symbionts associated with it? Focusing on the large ecosystem role that clams play and the financial impact of clams on coastal communities offers opportunities to engage with someone who may have little-to-no background in the area of study but may be interested in effects on other sectors. For example, one study showed that clams provided $2.8-5.8 million in nitrogen removal services to the city of Greenwich, Conn. The financial significance of clams allows the conversation to build on policymakers’ budgetary goals, which scientists can use as a supportive point to advocate for more funding for such basic science. 

Communication is a 2-way street where both the researcher and the audience play roles. Researchers can’t expect the audience to already care about the research, and the audience expects researchers to clearly tell them why they should care. Working toward that common ground may require further investigation to identify shared goals related to the science researchers are advocating for or communicating about. 

Adjust for Your Audience

Determining what and how much information the audience needs is an important skill in science communication. Policymakers, in particular, need different information than the general public might need to understand the work a researcher does. For instance, talking about transcriptomic data from clam symbionts with a K-12 audience isn’t an appropriate fit for the academic level of the audience. Instead, consider focusing on the anatomy of clams—talk about the “helper bacteria” and appeal to that age group with “fun facts.” For example, did you know that clams actually have feet? On the other hand, when speaking to a policymaker, they likely wouldn’t need a clam anatomy lesson, and “fun facts” would be out of place.

Illustration of a scientist talking to a group of K-12 students.
Science communication happens on many levels. Different audiences require different communication styles.
Source: DataBase Center for Life Science (DBCLS)

Beyond the type and amount of information presented to the audience, the amount of jargon used is also audience-dependent. Many researchers try to oversimplify their research while trying to make the language more accessible. Using analogies, concept explanations and repetition to get the point across is a better avenue that respects the intelligence of the audience. Removing jargon while still being concise is another concern. Depending on the audience type, the length of a researcher’s communication time may vary. A whole class period may be available, or it may be a brief 10-minute meeting with a congressional staff member. Adjusting language and detail for the time available is crucial. 

Add a Personal Touch

A researcher’s passion can be contagious. If researchers talk passionately about their work, such as adding details about what specifically piqued their curiosity or interest in the topic, the audience’s interest is sure to follow. For example, research on clams and their bacterial symbionts revealed that eukaryotic organisms, such as humans and clams, can’t synthesize their own vitamin B12, yet, bacteria are able to provide this essential vitamin. Discovering relationships that extend outside of the specific area of research can foster passion and excitement for the project itself and can excite your audience too.

Jillian Walton presents her research at Clemson University's Creative Inquiry program.
Jillian Walton (right) presents her research on Lucinid clams at Clemson University’s Creative Inquiry program.
Source: Jillian Walton

Passion also helps researchers be authentic, and that authenticity aids their credibility with the audience. This authenticity can also arise from the audience seeing scientists as "more human” when scientists state the origin of their interest in the research or input some personal history into their communication. Without adding such personal touches, barriers can arise between the researcher and the audience, which negatively affects the audience's understanding.

Communicating and advocating for basic research can be difficult, but by applying these techniques researchers can connect to their audience and make their research accessible.

Jillian Walton received ASM's 2023 Brad Fenwick Fellowship for the Advancement of Civic Science, designed to recognize and support early career scientists with an interest and aptitude for bridging the worlds of science and the broader society through policy and advocacy. Bradley W. (Brad) Fenwick, DVM, Ph.D., was an award-winning scientist, veterinarian and leader in science policy. He was a passionate advocate for science and for cultivating the public’s appreciation of its power to improve society, and this fellowship was created to honor his memory. Applications for the 2024 Fenwick Fellowship close at 11:59 p.m. ET on April 28, 2024.

Author: Jillian Walton

Jillian Walton
Jillian Walton is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, founder of the Knoxville-Tennessee Environmental Soil and Stream Testing program and the 2023 ASM Brad Fenwick Fellow.