Bridging the Gap

The SOJC’s Center for Science Communication Research aims to make complex science—about climate change, wildfires, COVID-19, and more—useful to the public.

Story by Joanna Mann ’21, School of Journalism and Communication

Over the years, the barriers between those who conduct science and those who benefit from it have grown taller and wider. As issues such as climate change and COVID-19 are increasingly politicized, it has become clear that scientific knowledge is useful only when we are aware of it, understand it, and apply it to our lives.

The Center for Science Communication Research (SCR) aims to make science more widely accessible by enhancing the conversation between scientists and society. Founded in 2017 in the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) with funding from the UO Presidential Fund for Excellence, the center connects collaborators across campus and the world to research the most effective ways to communicate science to the public.

Working with SCR presents unique opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to learn about science communication and gain experience in science communication research.

Attracted in part by the center’s interdisciplinary nature, Karikarn (Kay) Chansiri moved to the United States from Thailand to pursue a PhD in communication and media studies at the SOJC. She works with Ellen Peters, Philip H. Knight Chair and director of SCR, to explore how Americans’ skill and confidence with numbers predict their perceptions of health risks as well as their behaviors.

“I have been interested in science since I was young,” Chansiri said. “[I thought] ‘Why don’t I combine social science and science?’ And that got me interested in science communication, which basically just wants to communicate science and scientific findings to other people.”

By making science understandable, Chansiri and the rest of SCR’s researchers work to help people make informed decisions about how to stay healthy, where to put their money, who to trust, how to act on climate change, and how to generally lead better lives. Those decisions were always important, but in a year full of climate and public health catastrophes, SCR’s mission to make complex science useful has become even more critical.

A student wearing a mask walking down the stairs toward another student wearing a mask in Allen Hall with the SOJC Center for Science Communication Research banner behind them

Karikarn “Kay” Chansiri (right) and Thipkanok “Ping” Wongphothiphan moved from Thailand to join the communication and media studies doctoral program at the SOJC. They continue to work closely with each other and SCR faculty associates on health communication research.

 

Areas of SCR Research

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Health Communication

SCR associates examine how to design and implement communication strategies that improve health. When and how should public health messages inform versus persuade to affect decision-making?

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Environmental Communication

SCR associates research how communication about environmental systems impacts what people believe and how they behave. What drives conversations around climate change?

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Science and Technology

SCR associates analyze how innovative and immersive communication tools influence people’s reactions to messages. How can science and technology be more inclusive for people of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds?

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Judgment and Decision-Making

SCR associates investigate how communication impacts risk perceptions and decision-making. How can we help people process numbers better when making choices that affect their daily lives?

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Creative Inquiry

SCR associates explore scientific inquiry and knowledge production via traditional and emergent media. How can storytelling make scientific information more accessible to the public?

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Health Communication

Open Communication about Public Health Saves Lives

Developing transparent and authentic health communication can strengthen the relationships between researchers and community members, which is especially important during a pandemic. As the coronavirus flipped life as we knew it upside down, SCR researchers began examining how people make health decisions in the face of a public health crisis.

Peters is a leading coronavirus expert at the UO, working with colleagues across campus to share and disseminate information about the progressing pandemic. Much of her research also explores the foundations of human judgment and decision-making: emotions and numeric literacy, which is like reading literacy, but with numbers. Her results support the critical importance of presenting numbers in understandable formats so that people can use them effectively.

One of her primary goals for the center is establishing collaborations with researchers in the SOJC, across UO, and at other research institutions.

“SCR is building a transdisciplinary group of scholars who merge evidence and story to promote scientific and numeric literacy in the public,” Peters said. “Ultimately, by understanding communication processes and effective messages better, we can engage a more knowledgeable public who can make better decisions about critical problems we face as Oregonians and as a nation.”

Public relations associate professor Autumn Shafer collaborates with Chansiri and Peters on health communication research. Shafer often includes students in her work, which focuses on the social, theoretical, and practical issues related to public health promotion.

She credits the center’s collaborative culture for expanding her research opportunities.

Autumn Shafer

Autumn Shafer, associate professor of public relations

“My experience with the SCR has been transformative,” said Shafer, who is one of many recipients of the center’s small research grants. “Through the SCR, I was introduced to a research team at Oregon Health & Science University. This introduction two years ago has led to multiple research collaborations and a recent National Institute of Health funding award.”

Shafer is working with SOJC students to implement a communication strategy for the Healthy Oregon Project, which helps Oregonians better understand their risks for cancer and chronic diseases. The study aims to strengthen the relationship between scientists and the public to answer important health questions.

“One out of every 100 Oregonians has a genetic cancer risk that changes the way their doctor should handle their care. Of those at risk, most don't know it,” Shafer said. “The Healthy Oregon Project is committed to identifying those individuals and letting them know what they can do to reduce their risk. Every participant in the Healthy Oregon Project helps advance our understanding of the causes of cancer and the importance of early detection.”

 
36
faculty associates, including 4 international associates

 

25
student associates
$2M+
received in grants and contracts in 2020
13
research projects in 2020

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Environmental Communication

Driving Conversations about Climate Change

Environmental communication shapes how we view natural systems and humans’ role in them. SCR researchers illuminate the importance of understanding environmental issues and communication’s impact on people’s beliefs and actions.

Troy Elias and Dani Clarke review an international scope of research detailing how people view climate change.

Associate professor of advertising Troy Elias (right) and 2019 advertising and brand responsibility master’s alum Dani Clarke review an international scope of research detailing how people view climate change.

SCR associate and advertising associate professor Troy Elias examines how different groups react to—and act on—messages about climate change. His research found people of color are as concerned or more concerned about climate change than white people, but their contributions to the climate change movement remain mostly unrecognized by the media and advertisers.

“Regardless of the degree of need or circumstances within racial-ethnic minority groups, their level of environmental concern supersedes or is commensurate with white Americans,” Elias said. “The amount and type of media these groups consume—conservative or nonconservative news—have associations with their environmental attitudes and behavioral intentions in ways that are not uniform across their racial-ethnic identities.”

SCR’S founding researcher Hollie Smith, assistant professor of science and environmental communication, explores people’s responses to environmental risk and media coverage. She is leading a study funded by the United States Geological Survey to determine how to shift public behavior around climate change across Oregon communities of varying socioeconomic status.

She also works with students in many ways, including teaching a unique wildfire communication course through the Clark Honors College that helps students explore fire through storytelling.

“I love working with undergraduate and graduate students through all stages of research and writing,” Smith said. “When students are involved, they help with every aspect of research: data collection, analysis, and writing. Working together allows us all a time to grow and see things from new perspectives.”

 

The Fire Story Podcast

SCR is looking at the public’s connection to wildfires through media and science communication. Hosted by SCR associate director Mark Blaine and founding researcher Hollie Smith, The Fire Story podcast brings together wildfire experts from diverse backgrounds to discuss the science of communication during a fire event, fire preparedness techniques, the complexities of wildfire response, and how communities and the landscape recover after a fire.

The series gives communication professionals and the public a more nuanced understanding of wildfire’s multiple dimensions through the lens of recent wildland fires in Oregon.

 

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Science and Tech

Gender Exclusivity in the Gaming World

Media studies assistant professor Amanda Cote is an expert in game studies, gender, and representation in the gaming industry. Her animated video, From Digital to Dungeons: What the video game industry can learn from D&D, details how most video games are framed as a technology for boys more than girls. Her recent book, Gaming Sexism, also explores the misogyny embedded in video game culture, while her research has helped shape the SOJC’s cutting-edge game studies curriculum. In this video, Cote emphasizes how including diverse stories and characters in video games would reach a wider audience and result in better sales.

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Creative Inquiry

Engaging Communities through Creativity

While many of those who work with SCR focus on traditional scientific research methods, others use a more creative approach to share information.

Robin FitzClemen and Maxwell Foxman take Robin’s board game, Wildfire, for a test run.

Journalism master’s student Robin FitzClemen ’20 (left) and assistant professor of media studies Maxwell Foxman take FitzClemen’s board game, Wildfire, for a test run. The game aims to teach players about climate change as they make moves to extinguish wildland fires.

In January 2020, SCR hosted a Climate Change Game Night where students could play and provide feedback on games meant to help people retain climate change information. Journalism master’s student Robin FitzClemen debuted his culminating project Wildfire, a board game that lets players take wildfire management into their own hands by rolling dice to determine how to contain the fires burning across the board.

Outside the classroom, SOJC students can develop practical science communication skills and witness a warming planet’s impact firsthand through Science & Memory. Housed in the SCR, this faculty-led experiential learning program takes students to locations around the world, from the Oregon Coast and Alaska to Hawaii and Ghana, to tell complex stories about adaptation to climate change.

Professor of practice and SCR assistant director Mark Blaine cofounded Science & Memory with his SOJC colleagues Deborah Morrison, Dan Morrison, and Torsten Kjellstrand. He also co-led with Kjellstrand River Stories, a series of classes that took students into the field to learn, observe, film, and create stories about the Willamette River and those who live within its ecosystem.

Blaine is curious about how storytelling helps communicate scientific information to the public and how scientists can humanize data and statistics with empathy and accessibility. He is working on a documentary series called A Kayak to Carry Us that shows how learning to build a traditional Sugpiaq kayak can help Native children maintain and invigorate their language, culture, and way of knowing the land and the ocean.

“The SCR is really coming together at a critical time in society,” Blaine said. “A year ago I would have said science held a high level of public trust, but the circumstances of the public response to coronavirus have me questioning what those attitudes are now. If there was ever a time when we needed public trust in science, it’s today.”

Mark Blaine films Sven Haakanson as he fillets a salmon for the documentary series “A Kayak to Carry Us.”

SOJC professor Torsten Kjellstrand captures SCR associate director Mark Blaine (right) filming Sven Haakanson as he fillets a salmon for the documentary series A Kayak to Carry Us. Haakanson is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and the curator of North American anthropology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

 

Spotlight on SCR Research Associates

Hollie Smith

Assistant professor of science and environmental communication Hollie Smith is SCR’s founding researcher. Her background as a reporter helped shape her research interest in how the media portrays scientific information and how people use it to make decisions. Smith looks at communication and media dynamics on federal forest policy, water contamination, climate change, and alternative energy transitions.

Troy Elias

Associate professor of advertising Troy Elias is interested in increasing minority participation in the climate change movement and dispelling negative stereotypes around minorities’ attitudes toward climate change. His areas of expertise include advertising, race and ethnicity, and information and communication technology. Elias believes the messaging around climate change should focus less on whether or not it exists and more on how we can make a difference collectively.

David Markowitz

Assistant professor of advertising David Markowitz uses computational approaches to gather and analyze data while performing experiments to examine relationships between humans and technology. His research focuses on how deception affects language—including how fraudulent scientists’ research papers differ from those of genuine scientists. Markowitz believes we can use our digital records to draw inferences about ourselves and our relationships.

Donna Davis

Associate professor Donna Davis directs the strategic communication master’s program at SOJC Portland. She also studies online behavior in virtual worlds, working with avatars to better understand what it means to be in a digital community with a digital body. Davis studies marginalized communities and people with disabilities whose physical bodies are limited in the physical world but have no limits in a virtual world.