“At least we’re trying”: Experimenting with roles and repertoires to foster new connections between science and society: Conduct defined experiments using best practices highlighted in showcases to determine the extent to which approaches work in different context

Research output: Book / ReportReportAcademic


The current science communication ecosystem is highly fragmented, dynamic and complex. This provides science communicators with both opportunities, but also leads to difficult challenges. The RETHINK project aims to understand the changing landscape of science communication and research, experiment with and develop methods for science communicators to stimulate open, transparent and productive science-society interactions. In the past two and a half years RETHINK has strived to understand this complex ecosystem. Whilst science communicators generally recognize opportunities to strengthen the ties between science and society, many science communication practitioners and scholars involved in the RETHINK project perceive a disconnect between science and society, i.e., a disconnect with their audiences.

Four (interrelated) developments play an important role in this disconnect, and have been explored in earlier research by RETHINK. First, the boundaries between science and society have become blurred, confronting the public with a vast amount of information from a variety of sources and as a result, facts are increasingly becoming mixed with opinions and scientific issues are becoming politized. Second, science communication has become heavily digitalized, fundamentally changing the relationship between science and society, leading to new channels and resources for science communication, and facilitating the creation of information about science by a variety of publics online. Third, the rapid proliferation of misinformation and affiliated polarization, magnified by the pandemic’s sudden emergence, changes the dynamics between science and society further. Fourth, misconceptions of how citizens make sense of complex science-related problems and the inability to reach all members of society equally when communicating about science are sobering insights for science communication professionals: their practice might not reach their audiences as effectively as thought.

The contemporary science communication ecosystem is thus highly complex and science communicators are working to find ways to address the disconnect between science and society, something RETHINK aims to account for in this study. Traditional roles (e.g., conduits, watchdogs) for science communication professionals might no longer be suitable and sufficient in the current landscape under varying circumstances. Therefore, the aim of this report is to explore the different roles science communicators assume – or should be assuming – to meet the challenges and demands in the contemporary science communication landscape.

On the basis of earlier RETHINK research on how science communicators employ innovative techniques to reach underserved audiences, six roles were formulated that can be – and are – adopted by science communication practitioners to enhance their connections with a wider range of audiences: The Broker, creates connections between target audience and actors to obtain access to a target group, links with other actors to supply, involves all actors in dialogue; The Listener, connects to target audience with active listening and empathy and integrates that what is learned in communication activity; The Includer, breaks down physical, social, cultural barriers to give audience access to resources, spaces, knowledge & opportunities; The Enabler, provides target audience with access to information, resources, spaces, and changes power dynamics between science-society; The Educator, contributes to understanding scientific method and process, and critical thinking skills leading to misinformation identification; and The Entertainer, gets scientific communication across via games, arts, performances, hands-on activities & storytelling.

This deliverable reports how a broad range of different science communicators experimented with these different roles in science communication. Accordingly, we seek to conceptually deepen the understanding of these roles by drawing from other RETHINK research on role repertoires. Repertoires link scientists’ underlying perspective on science-society interactions to the activities they deploy. By expanding the conceptual scope by also including repertoires, we aim to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of how roles in science communication take shape.

Our approach
To research the role repertoires that science communication professionals apply in their practice, but also about the roles that seem to be lacking, particularly in relation to addressing the disconnect between science and society, we facilitated communicating scientists, science journalists and other science communicators in conducting small-scale reflective practice experiments in their own science communication practice. The 23 participants in these experiments volunteered to experiment with and reflect on their interactions with their audiences after having participated in various RETHINK workshops. The reflective practice experiments consisted of: 1) a ‘kick-off’ interview, in which the challenges experienced by practitioners were identified, and subsequently small (thought) experiments were designed; 2) conduct of the small (thought) experiments, of which participants filled in multiple reflection diary entries to keep track of their experiences in experimenting; and 3) a second interview to discuss their experiences. From this data, we performed a qualitative analysis in which we adopted a deductive approach to find these six roles – we constructed various role repertoires per participant while simultaneously looking for overarching themes and patterns across the various participants.

Our findings suggest that the participants assumed the various aforementioned roles when acting at the science-society interface. In order to overcome the disconnect between science and society, we emphasize the importance of roles that engage in two-way (or multi-way) communication, i.e., the Broker, Enabler and Listener are important, and particularly the role of the Listener, which was occasionally enabled by the reflective practice experiments. Furthermore, participants mentioned the importance of establishing connections between science and society. Yet, only a few participants apply these roles and even fewer engage in activities that aim to gain insights into what society needs and wants and enable this information to feed back into the scientific process. Furthermore, three overarching challenges can be identified that concern how the different roles in science communication were displayed by the participants: 1) the need to strengthen roles that facilitate two-way communication; 2) audiences are frequently undefined; and 3) there are unproductive perspectives of society.

What now?
On the basis of this study, we conclude that valuable science communication activities are undertaken to bridge/overcome the found disconnect between the sciences and society, and our results show that all six roles (Educator, Broker, Listener, Includer, Enabler and Entertainer) are relevant and warrant cultivation. However, based on the challenges we found, we conclude that a concerted effort is necessary. Therefore, in order to strengthen the plethora of roles needed to overcome the disconnect between science and society, we propose two new roles that operate on the level of governance i.e., the Change Agent (‘actors who promote and practically facilitate a culture of science communication’) and the Playmaker (‘actors who assume problem ownership or either have (implied) responsibility about issues that arise at the science- society interface and also have the means to facilitate change’). Ultimately, we propose three strategies (stimulate reflective practice in science communication; invest in learning networks; promote science communication through policy) to strengthen science communication roles.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherRETHINK SciComm
Commissioning bodyEuropean Committee
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2021


Dive into the research topics of '“At least we’re trying”: Experimenting with roles and repertoires to foster new connections between science and society: Conduct defined experiments using best practices highlighted in showcases to determine the extent to which approaches work in different context'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this