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What is research communication and why is it important?

Science and technology are embedded in virtually every aspect of modern life. Communications professionals and organisations producing research increasingly face the need to find creative ways to integrate their scientific achievements with their content strategy.

Effective science communication is particularly complex. It is highly dependent on what is being communicated, its relevance to those participating in the conversation, in addition to the social and media dynamic around the issues being addressed. This makes getting it right and deriving lessons that can be applied across issues and contexts particularly challenging.

This article aims to provide insights into the following questions:

  • What is research communication and why is it important

  • What makes good research communications content?

  • What is the future of research communications and where are we heading?

  • Five tips for communicating research and impact

What is research communication and why is it important?

Impact, outreach and research communications have become buzzwords in the higher education landscape where universities and researchers must deliver impact, engage with enterprise, and communicate their research to broader audiences.

In fact, plans for effective research communication are now required in many research funding applications. Additionally the Research Excellence Framework (REF), is looming in 2021, this is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. Universities who aren’t communicating their research effectively could miss out on government research funding and the top spots in university rankings.

There is increasing pressure for universities to tell the innovation stories of their technology transfer, start-ups, spin-outs and the commercialisation of their research while simultaneously highlighting the opportunities for training and mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs who will drive those new technologies forward.

If organisations hit the sweet spot when it comes to communicating their research achievements and activity, it can have a number of tangible business benefits. It can also positively grow their reputation and even influence policy decisions for the betterment of economies, societies and humanity.

What makes good research communications content?

Research communications is a skilled activity addressing a range of audience groups. The skills and abilities to interpret complex findings and distill them into usable information for non-experts without over simplification and ‘dumbing down’, are essential for your content to engage these audiences.

To achieve results that further goals and objectives there are many factors to consider, most important is ensuring your content is relevant to your audience. Your audience will want to know how the research is useful to them or how it could change the lives of their constituents, readers and viewers.

When crafting the message, it is useful to keep in mind your objective – what you want to get across to the audience, the relevance – what does the audience want to know about this story and clarity – what could this audience get wrong unless you stress the right information.

Timing is also key. There can be a temptation to communicate when findings are ready to share and when it is convenient to do so, but information that is relevant to these audiences is best communicated when they are ready and willing to listen.

There are a raft of content formats available to deliver research communications ranging from:

  • Press releases

  • Q&A’s

  • Features

  • Case studies

  • Podcasts and videos

  • Events, briefings and exhibitions

The audiences for research communications vary depending on the type of research but tailoring the message, content, channel and timing can be crucial to reaching them. Potential audience groups identified in the Department for International Development (DFID)’s working paper Research Communication Insights from Practice include;

  • Researchers who are involved in similar areas of study and research, who may well use and develop research findings further and then pass them on.
  • Research organisations and educational institutions which can encourage their staff and students to engage, analyse and discuss issues around the relevance and impact of research findings.
  • Intermediaries such as Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) play a key role in reaching policy makers when research findings are processed into policy briefings and similar outputs.
  • Funding agencies, research councils, charities and major donors have the power to provide crucial financial support to universities and research projects.
  • Industry decision makers and industrial scientists are key users of research who can facilitate collaborative projects on real world problems and often funding.
  • Influencers include the traditional media and digital publishers who can reach out to a much wider audience.

The future of research communications

Looking at some of the wider trends in communications identified in the Reuters News Institute for the study of journalism’s report: Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2020 it is clear that technology advances will present opportunities for content creators and research communicators.

The report identifies that better, more immersive, feature-rich headphones (e.g. AirPod Pro and similar devices) will prove to be a big tech hit this year, giving a boost to audio formats like podcasts. Transcription and automated translation will be some of the first AI-driven technologies to reach mass adoption, opening up new frontiers and opportunities.

It also suggests that thanks to 5G rollout, faster and more reliable smartphone connectivity, will make it ever easier to access multimedia content on the go. Advances in technology will soon enable AI driven news pages to be tailored to visitor interests, presenting yet more opportunities to reach intended audiences.

Looking more closely at crafting research communications the Pew Research Center performed a study on ‘the science people see on social media’ across 30 science related social media pages with between 3 million and 44 million followers.

Here’s what they found: New scientific discoveries are covered in 29% of the posts on these pages. Fully 21% of posts featured the practical applications of science information, framed as “news you can use.” Another 16% of posts were promotions or advertisements for media or events and 12% of posts were aimed at explaining a science-related concept.

Throughout the study, video was a common feature of the most highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives.

Here are some examples of some great research communications video content that;

  1.   Feature interesting people
  2.   Do the unexpected
  3.   Simplify the science
  4.   Use wonder
  5.   Make researchers the hero
  6.   Make it relatable
  7.   Make it shareable

The timing, content type and quality of the science may not be the only factors that influence decision making. There is a need to make existing information more accessible and to analyse and synthesise research to provide tailored content.

There is also a need for more harmonised and effective communication of research across institutions using agreed language, tools and standards.

Ultimately knowledge is power. It is important to remember the ability to communicate research findings should be regarded as a public good on par with creating new knowledge. Because, if pioneering research is able to solve a grand challenge facing people and planet, but nobody knows about it, how can it help?

Five tips for communicating research and impact

  • Know your audience, focus and organise your information for them
  • Focus on the big picture such as the major ideas or issues the work addresses
  • Avoid jargon, try to avoid technical terms and keep the language simple
  • Try to use metaphors or analogies to everyday experiences that people can relate to
  • Underscore how the research can be applied or how it can inform effective policy making

The research landscape can be complex but if done correctly, conveying the benefits to society of research, teaching and innovation can be particularly rewarding for organisations, researchers and communications professionals.

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Alexander Buxton

Alexander Buxton

Alexander Buxton is a communications strategist and consultant with over ten years experience in communications roles within the public and the private sector. Through speaking, writing, and training programs he offers insights into contemporary issues in content strategy, content creation, and communication technology.

Alex is Head of Strategic Communications at the University of Oxford. Prior to joining the Public Affairs Directorate at Oxford, Alex spent two years as a senior advisor for global branding and communications working with universities in the Middle East, three years leading on research communications for the University of Warwick and five years implementing communications strategy with UK emergency services and the private sector. He has related qualifications from Oxford Brookes University, the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Yale School of Management.

Connect with Alex on LinkedIn, Twitter @ADBComms or at alexander-buxton.com

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