Why Communicating the Science of Learning is So Hard—And What Could Help

Blog Post
New America
March 28, 2019

Every month, in laboratories and on-the-ground experiments around the world, scientists are uncovering insights about how to help children learn and develop. But as we have noted before, too often new findings are either left to languish in inaccessible academic journals, contorted by splashy headlines, or too complicated to lead to real policy changes.

The Learning Sciences Exchange program was designed as a counterweight to these problems. For the past nine months, the 12 fellows in the program—three each from four different sectors, including science, journalism, policy, and entertainment—have been learning from each other and working collaboratively to gain a deeper understanding of each others’ fields and to consider new approaches to communicating. In July, they met for the first time at the International Congress of Infant Studies in Philadelphia; in November, they met at at the Jacobs Foundation’s headquarters in Zurich, and last week, at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, the fellows came together for a third in-person gathering in Baltimore.


The convergence of different perspectives at these meetings is energizing and full of promise. But the discussion at these meetings is also helping to clarify exactly why it can be so difficult to communicate science to a broader audience. That’s not because it is difficult for the fellows to talk to each other—on the contrary, there is a wonderful camaraderie among them. But instead, fellows and organizers are now able to pinpoint more precisely what barriers will need to be overcome to help parents, teachers, politicians, and everyday people gain a better understanding of the learning sciences.

One of the key reasons for the trouble communicating is that incentives are not aligned. What does that mean exactly? Consider the following four examples of misalignment, drawn from conversations among the fellows and advisory board members at our meetings:

  1. The tenure system does not favor outreach and communications. University institutions are the home for most if not all of the scientists who are discovering new elements of how babies communicate, or why parent responsiveness leads children to be more open to learning, or any of the multitude of findings that could help people to better understand human brain development and learning. The researchers in these institutions are typically in the process of navigating the tenure system, which favors publication in highly esteemed journals more than outreach or communication to broader audiences. Although “service” is supposed to count for something, it is not easy to find faculty leaders who know how to help researchers do outreach and communications. And even university communications departments may not be well-equipped to help academics make the most of their new findings and get the word out at the right time in a way that leads to positive impact. “Knowing when to communicate is hard,” says Lisa Scott, an LSX fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Florida.
  2. The business models of entertainment and journalism favor speed and novelty. Entertainment business models, in particular, do not allow for the time and careful attention required to digest and ruminate on the nuances of science. Ideas for television shows and movies are pitched with alacrity, and buzz and a dramatic storyline are what sells. Long pitches with long explanations don’t cut it. Sadly, “people do not read,” says Robert Mark Carpenter, an LSX fellow and director of the USC Media Institute for Social Change. In journalism, the speed of the news cycle is a serious challenge, as reporters need answers on tight deadlines and can’t wait for days before a scientist returns their calls. In addition, newspapers and magazines are coping with cratering subscriptions for their paid content, while blogs and commentary sites appear with dozens of new articles a week written by people who are not vetted by editors, nor paid for their time. For example, as Catherine de Lange, features editor and LSX fellow, says of her publication, New Scientist: “We are a subscription model. How can we compete with free?”
  3. Scientists and reporters are not encouraged to talk and get to know each other. In fact, journalists are counseled not to get too close to researchers from a particular camp or “side” of the story, as editors have concerns that they will not be objective in their reporting. And as we learned during the “secrets of science communications” session we led at the SRCD conference, scientists are often told to not talk to reporters or return their calls, but instead to transfer reporters to the public relations office. This detracts from a reporter being able to gain a deep understanding of how experiments worked or what a scientist is particularly passionate about. As our LSX advisory group member and science journalist Claudia Kalb says, reporters need opportunities to build relationships with sources so that they can understand the context of the science they are writing about and so they can learn the richer stories behind the statistics in a dry journal article.
  4. Funders from government and private philanthropy increasingly make grants with expectations of short-term impact. But the widespread impact of those grants can take a long time to appear. It can take years to do the hard work of changing of influencing policy and practice, helping decision-makers apply the lessons of science, giving scientists more training in communications and communicators more training in science, and building the intermediary organizations that can serve as translators and connectors. The outcomes of smart and savvy communications are not easy-to-quantify and track right away. For example, a policymaker might absorb lessons from a well-disseminated report about a particular intervention that helps young children but timing and politics may lead the policymaker to wait several years before putting those lessons into legislation, and many more years may pass before the legislation is enacted into law. “You need funders who can provide time and take risks,” said Randa Grob-Zakhary, LSX advisory group member and CEO of Insights for Education.

These four areas of disconnection can seem daunting. The good news is that the problems are becoming better understood and that there are new initiatives underway to bridge these gaps.

Our LSX program, which is a partnership between New America, the International Congress on Infant Studies, and the Jacobs Foundation, is breaking new ground by bringing disparate professionals together not only to exchange ideas but also to work and write collaboratively. In June of 2020, they will present what they have learned and built. Progress is also appearing in the development of networks such as the Jacobs Foundation Network, which brings together researchers, social entrepreneurs, journalists, and public policy professionals, and which just recently announced a new group of journalism fellows. The Society for Research on Child Development is increasing its investment in communications personnel and outreach to new organizations in policy and media. Workshops and degree programs are now available through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stonybrook University, and John Hopkins University’s Science of Learning Institute, including courses from the online editor of Science David Grimm. And the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine put forth a consensus report a few years ago, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, calling for new research on how to communicate science, including how to debunk myths and use narrative and storytelling to help people understand concepts that touch their lives in hidden but powerful ways.

These efforts can’t come soon enough. “Citizens are left to their own devices as they struggle to determine whom to trust and what to believe about science-related controversies,” the National Academies authors wrote in the brief that accompanied their report. “This is the new—and not entirely understood—media environment with which science communicators must cope.” As the authors said in a presentation on their recommendations, “Society’s need for science communication has never been greater.”

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