A blueprint for science communication with Anita Layton

Researchers need to raise their game in light of new NSERC emphasis on knowledge translation

By Jon Parsons Faculty of Mathematics

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) recently released a set of revised guidelines for what can be considered contributions to research.

Knowledge translation is now featured prominently on the list and includes "communication of research results and knowledge translation to specialist or non-specialist audiences, including the public."

NSERC specifically acknowledges articles in news outlets and the popular press, media interviews, blog posts, social media publications and public lectures.

"It may take some time for these new guidelines to be widely-recognized," says Anita Layton, professor of applied mathematics and Canada 150 Research Chair of Mathematical Medicine and Biology.

"In promotion and tenure, for example, some committees may not give it the credit it deserves. But with NSERC saying it matters and counts toward funding decisions, it’s only a matter of time until everyone gets the message."

Communicating impact

Layton has long been a trailblazer in science communication, something she says grew out of a necessity to effectively communicate with researchers in different fields and with the broader public audience she wants her interdisciplinary research to reach.

Researching in mathematical medicine means she needs to connect with specialists including medical doctors, clinicians, computer scientists and the front-line nurses caring for patients.

But her audience can also include non-specialists and the general public. For example, in Layton’s recent media release on how combining certain blood pressure and pain drugs can be a "triple whammy" that causes kidney damage, she wanted to directly reach the broad public audience who may benefit from the warning.

The release was widely syndicated in media outlets worldwide, and Layton even reports having heard from nurses and caregivers in the community who said the information reached their workplaces about the combination of drugs to look out for.

Know your audience

"One thing I found difficult with science communication at first was understanding my audience," Layton continues. "Researchers can sometimes take for granted the specialist knowledge they have, so to do effective science communication we have to be able to step back and see it from another person’s point-of-view."

Layton says researchers need to consider the audience when crafting any specific message they want to communicate and need to pick the right venue and the right medium. Besides publishing an article in an academic journal, researchers can write an op-ed or disseminate that message by posting or sharing a video on social media.

"Science communication can seem straightforward, but I’ve found there’s a steep learning curve. I tried to seek out excellent science communicators and learn from them," she says.

Form and content

Recently, Layton’s research lab has been creating a as a way to build upon the ongoing success of consistent media releases. She has also done radio interviews and podcasts.

Speaking of the recent foray into science communication videos, she says it has posed some new challenges "and it is certainly a lot of work." But figuring out how to do science communication in this new medium is also pushing Layton to narrate the story of her research in creative ways and helping her reach new audiences.

"Every researcher I know wants to do meaningful work that matters to people," she says. "But some of us may not know what is possible with science communication and what supports are available. I have found it helpful to start simple, maybe just with an op-ed, and get some feedback from some of the communications specialists we have on staff."

"With the pace of change and the scale of the problems facing the world, effective knowledge translation is more important now than ever. As academics, we have a responsibility to put ourselves out there, even if it can be a little uncomfortable at first."