Less (Paper) Talk, More Podcasts: A Call to Action to Improve Public Communication Efforts in Clinical Science
Kathryn Coniglio, MS
In his Invited Address at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) 2021 Convention, Dr. Kelly Brownell used the largest platform of the conference sponsored by one of the leading professional organizations in clinical psychology to implore us to be better at communicating science. Clinical scientists, he admitted, are not often trained to communicate their findings to anyone other than fellow scientists, but the importance of collaborating with non-scientist change agents to increase the impact of our field cannot be overstated (Brownell & Roberto, 2015).
Over the past few years, the importance of communication has become increasingly recognized by the scientific field broadly. Universities offer curricula, and even minors, in science communication; several peer-reviewed journals exist devoted solely to science communication; and social media savvy scientists can become “#scicomm” influencers in their own right. Specific strategies for communicating science may differ slightly across fields, but there are several common principles at the core of any successful science communication effort: remove the jargon, turn your science into a story, and explain how that story impacts your audience.
Clinical science, however, requires a more detailed approach. For one, clinical science has two different target audiences. We need to capture the attention not only of prospective change agents but also of prospective healthcare consumers.
But clinical scientists have more experience with science communication than we may realize. We communicate science every day to our patients in the therapy room when we provide psychoeducation. We may not receive formal training in science communication, but we do possess the skill of presenting science in an accessible way that motivates someone to make an exceedingly difficult behavior change (e.g., begin exposure therapy to their fears).
Despite that we may have a head start with our communication skill, there are also barriers to science communication that are unique to clinical science that require more creative solutions:
Clinical science is sometimes at odds with clinical psychology. Many psychologists believe that our field is not a science at all, but an art. When we are not aligned on what is considered high quality, dissemination-worthy science, the overall message suffers. Clinical scientists are doubly tasked not only with spreading information but also correcting beliefs about psychotherapy based on cringe-worthy TV and film portrayals.
Mental health is highly personal. As clinical scientists, we have developed a necessary thick skin around investigating topics that are upsetting, traumatic, and emotionally exhausting. It’s easy to forget that not everyone spends their days thinking about, and treating, individuals who are experiencing intense distress. In addition to using plain language, we have the added burden of taking the sting out of the emotionally charged topics while still relaying our message.
As conscientious behavior therapists know, identifying prospective barriers to implementing behavior change is a necessary step to overcoming them. Perseverance in the face of these science communication challenges is especially critical right now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed the magnitude of the mental health crisis in the U.S. Public interest in mental health is high right now. Yet, because very little is known about evidence-based mental health treatments, clinical science has an opportunity, and a duty, to empower consumers to be better equipped to evaluate the quality of mental health services.
Despite that the conditions are ripe right now, science communication should still be a marathon, not a sprint. Likely, the most effective strategy in increasing public visibility of clinical science will be to incorporate science communication at multiple touchpoints (e.g., graduate curriculum, professional societies). To this end, several ongoing initiatives are worth highlighting:
But smaller scale science communication should not be overlooked. The benefits to our field would be immeasurable if more clinical scientists chose to incorporate relatively low time burden communication activities more consistently in their work. Scientists interested in ramping up their communication to the public should ask themselves two questions: Who is the ideal audience for my message? And why should this audience care about my message? The answers to these questions will direct you to the appropriate tone, outlet, and medium for your message. If you wish to enact change in your community, for example, an op-ed to your local paper would be a much more effective dissemination tool than an incendiary thread on Twitter.
For those looking to incorporate science communication in a more systematic way, prioritize opportunities that involve a conversation instead of a platformed speaker proselytizing to a silent audience. After all, communication is, by definition, bidirectional. Consider strategies to increase political engagement. One-on-one conversations with potential voters are more effective than large-scale direct mail campaigns. Many of the venues we seek already exist, we just have to populate them:
Consistent pursuit of science communication may certainly require a slight reconfiguration of your time and effort. If this sounds unappealing, I encourage you to think for a moment about why you joined this field and what you hope to say you’ve accomplished when you leave it. Even if you tell just one other person today about your research and why it matters, then you are a science communicator, and you have helped increase visibility of the clinical science field in service of improving access to empirically tested mental health treatment.
Brownell, K. D., & Roberto, C. A. (2015). Strategic science with policy impact. The Lancet, 9986(385), 2445-2446.
Lewis Jr, N. A., & Wai, J. (2021). Communicating what we know and what isn’t so: Science communication in psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(6), 1242-1254.