Models of Communication

What is science communication?

That’s not an easy question to answer, and you’re likely to get almost as many answers as there are people studying the subject. This is partly due to varied viewpoints, but mostly because of the broad and multifaceted nature of science communication. Just as there are innumerable variables to consider when choosing a method of science communication, there are perhaps even more definitions.

According to a study by T. Burns and colleagues in 2003, science communication is more than simply “encouraging scientists to talk more about their work, nor is it an offshoot of the discipline of communications” (p. 183).

Burns also asserts that the terms science communication, scientific literacy and public understanding (and awareness) of science are not synonymous. Scientific literacy is most easily defined as competence or knowledge of scientific topics. The public awareness of science has to do with whether members of the public are informed on scientific issues, though they do not necessarily have to understand them in great detail. The public understanding of science takes awareness to the next level; some sources require higher education, while others think that personal investigation will suffice.

Science communication is a mixture of all of these concepts. It includes the whole process from start to finish. Doing scientific research, spreading awareness and understanding of research, and inspiring the public to take interest and get involved (as they can) in science, are all important. Science communication strives to increase scientific literacy in culture, for all stakeholders involved.

Burns et al. (2003) categorized the main contributors to science communication into stakeholder groups—the same stakeholder groups that will be a focus of this project:

  1. Scientists in academia, industry and governmental positions.
  2. Mediators and communicators, including all the ‘middle men’ like journalists and educators.
  3. Policymakers, policy-influencers and government officials.
  4. The public.

Working together, the stakeholder groups can accomplish the goal of increasing literacy in science, but this is not always the case. Or rather, this is often not the case. An unprecedented advance in technology and scientific discovery has forced stakeholders to reconsider exactly how they should be trying to communicate science. Scholars disagree on the best method of science communication, and because of this, a few models of communication have come into existence: the deficit model, the dialogue model and the participation model. The cultural cognition thesis has also gained traction in the last few years.

Although the goal of each method is essentially the same, the road to get there is different.

The deficit model relies on a one-way monologue from scientists to mediators, and mediators to the public. The dialogue model introduced an emphasis on context, allowing for some discussion among stakeholder groups, mainly in the form of feedback.

The participation model allows the public to take an even greater role than in the dialogue model and encourages the public to actively participate in generating science rather than commenting on published findings.

The cultural cognition thesis is less of a model and more of an explanation. It claims that people will gravitate toward beliefs they already align with or that they consider to be good or ideal.

Defining and executing a plan of science communication is no easy task, but regardless, science communication is invaluable for progress in science, as well as for the making of policy that protects the world and its people.


Bartock, L., & Rickard, Laura N. (2015). Walking the Talk? Examining the Practical Application of Models of Science Communication in Long-term Ecological Research Sites, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Burns, T., O’Connor, D., & Stocklmayer, S. (2003). Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition. Public Understanding of Science, 12(2), 183-202.

Jamieson, K., Kahan, D., Scheufele, D., & Akin, H. (2017). Overview of the Science of Science Communication. In The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (p. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication, Chapter 3). Oxford University Press.

Nisbet, M., & Scheufele, D. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 1767-1778.

Simis, M., Madden, H., Cacciatore, M., & Yeo, S. (2016). The lure of rationality: Why does the deficit model persist in science communication? Public Understanding of Science, 25(4), 400-414.