As STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields continue to expand at a rapid pace both in the United States and internationally, the need for clear and effective science communication has expanded accordingly. Science communication is a broad field that encompasses technical writing and editing, medical communication, scientific research writing, science journalism, public relations for scientific or health organizations, environmental communication, and marketing. Scholars and practitioners of science communication play key roles in industries ranging from the pharmaceutical industry to government agencies, research institutions, and technology companies ranging from large corporations to small startups.
Science communication has a rich history dating back to ancient times in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres. From the public debates and forums held by Greek philosophers to the invention of gunpowder, paper, and the compass in China, humans have been seeking to understand their world, create inventions based off of scientific principles, and convey their knowledge to fellow scholars or the public for millennia. Scientific communications of centuries past continue to impact our modern understanding of and interaction with the world. Think of Galileo’s published observations of our solar system, or the research publications of William Smellie of Scotland, who published a Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery in three volumes from 1752 to 1764 (Britannica).
In the modern era, the creation of science communication is no longer relegated to the ranks of the educational elite. Online journals have made the sharing of scientific insights much easier, while tech-centric corporations have found the need to write documentation and consumer instructions regarding their products. In addition, as non-profit organizations that advocate for the environment, women’s health and reproductive rights, and fostering youth education in the STEM fields, there has been an expansion in the variety of science communication being used to convey important ideas. Finally, as the United States and other countries face increasing challenges on the health care front, more medical institutions as well as health-related start-ups have begun investing time into connecting with and educating patients and potential consumers alike.
This Guide to Scientific Communication delves into the current landscape of science communication, including the fields within this expansive discipline, the forms of communication that scholars and practitioners of science communication use, and the diverse careers that people assume within this discipline.
The Fields Within Science Communication
As mentioned previously, the modern era has seen an expansion in the types of science communication that exist, and the media used to convey scientific information. Examples of science communication today include technical writing and editing, medical communication, scientific research writing, science journalism, political writing (on topics relating to science, medical, or health policy and advocacy), health and science marketing, environmental communication, and even public relations for companies that offer technical or scientific products/services.
Technical Writing and Editing
According to the Society for Technical Communication (STC), technical communication is defined as any form of communication that is about technical or specialized topics, instructs its audience/readership in how to do a particular task, or uses technology in its dissemination. Certain types of scientific and medical communication are also considered subsets of technical communication, if they are instructional in nature or concern a specialized topic in the scientific or medical field. The key characteristics of technical communication are that it is concise yet informative, explains or discusses niche topics in a cogent manner, and/or incorporates technology or science either in its subject matter or in its form of communication. Examples of technical writing and editing in the fields of scientific communication, medical communication, and technology include:
- Patient instructions and discussions of risk/side effects on pharmaceutical medications.
- Proposals that a university’s biochemistry research team submits for grant funding.
- Scientific articles published in scholarly journals meant for the research community, and reports that use statistical findings to discuss scientific phenomena to wider audiences.
- Project proposals or designs that require specialized knowledge, such as designs for technological products, an environmental preservation or resource management plan, or the trademark fermentation process for certain food products.
- White papers and press releases that concern complex scientific products, services, or issues, such as a corporation’s carbon footprint (with statistical evidence to substantiate any conclusions), or a description of a product’s impact on consumers’ health.
- Memos that are written for internal purposes at a biotechnology or medical device company, through which employees convey confidential and specialized knowledge about products, services, workflows, etc.
- A website with detailed instructions and interactive tutorials on how to use a particular web application, such as premium email features, cloud storage, a website builder, or a music or video editor.
- Computer and software manuals, such as instructions on how to use statistical analysis software.
- Instructions on how to operate machinery or complex devices, such as laboratory equipment, cameras, vehicles, and household appliances.
Technical writing is an important part of our economy and society because it enables companies to support their consumers in accessing and utilizing their products and services, thereby making them more successful in their business and in their contributions to the economy. In addition, technical writing and editing help consumers use products and services available to them more efficiently, safely, and effectively. For example, medical instructions, as a form of technical communication, are extremely important in ensuring effective and safe treatment of patient ailments. At the same time, online support centers for one’s computer or operating system can be crucial for a person to maintain productivity.
Strong technical writers are adept at translating complex and/or specialized concepts into understandable and actionable prose for their readership. They use no superfluous language, and may also have skills in creating visual representations of complex concepts, procedures, or phenomena. Examples of careers that are common in the field of technical writing and editing include technical documentation writers and editors at technology companies, software or hardware manual writer, web designers and developers, grant/proposal writer, corporate communications specialist, information architects, technical illustrators, e-learning experts and developers, and instructional designers.
Technical communication is a broad field that not only includes scientific and medical communication, but also encompasses a wide range of other communication forms. For more information on the depth and diversity of technical communication, please refer to our Technical Communication Hub.
Medical Communication and Medical Writing
One form of science communication that has been expanding rapidly as the health care industry has grown is medical communication. According to the American Medical Writers Association, medical communication is the design, creation, and dissemination of content that specifically concerns medicine and health care. As a subset of the larger field of health communication, medical communication plays a diverse and crucial role across many different environments, including not only health care settings, but also research, educational, and mass media contexts. Examples of medical communication include but are not limited to:
- Research papers written by scholars of medicine and human health.
- Grant proposals for medical research funding.
- Expert input provided by medical science liaisons (MSLs) and clinical scientists regarding medicines, medical devices, scientific research, patient care, and business strategy.
- Health care policies and regulations, as well as health-related advocacy materials produced by non-profit organizations.
- Pharmaceutical marketing and public relations.
- Medical and health advice articles written for online audiences.
- Patient-provider communication ranging from in-person conversations that doctors and nurses have with patients and their families, to video chats, emails, and medical/treatment instructions.
- Group and organizational communication within medical settings, including conversations and medical documentation shared between health care providers, and between administrative leadership and staff in hospitals.
As the examples above illustrate, medical communication is the medium through which medical phenomena are explored and documented, and through which health care innovations are designed and discovered. It is also a crucial element of organizational dynamics within medical settings such as hospitals and community health centers. Medical communication also ensures the efficacy of health care providers’ treatment plans, and the safety of their patients in both inpatient and outpatient environments. Effective medical communication, like technical communication, emphasizes clear, informative, and actionable content that is relevant to target audiences.
In addition to possessing strong writing skills, and depending on their specific role, medical communicators must be knowledgeable in health, medicine, the health care industry, and/or health care policy in order to speak to these topics for the benefit of their target audiences. Examples of careers in medical communication include medical documentation writers, medical journalists, health policy writers, medical textbook writers, pharmaceutical marketing specialists, medical science liaisons, clinical scientists, and public relations specialists for hospitals, health insurance companies, and medical associations. The American Medical Writers Association offers training in medical writing for professionals interested in learning more about the field and professional certifications (e.g., Essential Skills (ES) Certificate and the Medical Writer Certified (MWC) credential) for medical writers interested in adding credentials to enhance their marketability in the medical writing profession.
Note: Medical communication is a subset of health communication, which itself is a broad field that also includes communication relating to public health, health marketing and education, political advocacy, and even communication between patients and providers. For example, educational content relating to nutrition, exercise, and general well-being (as opposed to specialized medical advice), women’s health advocacy materials, and public health policies all qualify as health communication. For more information on health communication as a discipline, please refer to our Health Communication Hub.
Medical Science Liaisons and Clinical Scientists
There are additional roles within the field of medical communication that typically require professionals to possess a doctorate degree in a medical field: for example, an MD, a PhD in biomedical sciences, or a PharmD. These positions include medical science liaisons (MSLs) and clinical scientists. MSLs combine medical or research expertise with strong communication and analytical skills to support the success of medical companies. They serve as research consultants, business analysts, and relationship builders for medical device, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology corporations.
MSLs’ key responsibilities include serving as a liaison between investigators conducting clinical trials, health care providers, medical researchers, and other key opinion leaders and thought leaders in clinical research. They also engage in medical education services for health care providers and patients, and engage in the discussion, publication, and dissemination of medical research. MSLs work at the intersection of medical research, clinical science, and business development, and therefore this career path can be a good alternative for medical professionals and doctorate-level scientists who would like to expand their profession beyond bench science.
As MSLs gain additional business experience by working for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, they can take on more managerial roles that combine scientific expertise, content strategy, public relations, and business analysis and development. Examples of such roles include:
- Medical Communications Manager at a biotechnology company
- Manager of Global Medical Publications at a pharmaceutical corporation
- Director of Medical Affairs at a medical device company
Clinical scientists, like MSLs, typically hold an MD or PhD in a biomedical field and have several years of experience working in industry. They are subject level experts who oversee research that is conducted as part of clinical trials. Part of their responsibilities include duties similar to MSLs in that they communicate with investigators to answer research related questions. They also act as a bridge between scientist conducting bench research and professional conducting clinical trials.
Scientific Research Writing
Scientific research writing includes both published journal articles on scientific topics, as well as the notes, records, and drafts that researchers write during their studies and experiments. Moreover, as scientific research typically requires funding, scientific research writing also includes the proposals that scientists must write explaining the details and importance of their research, which they submit to institutions that provide public or private research funding. Scientific research writing is an important discipline because it is how researchers across different scientific disciplines document, analyze, and share their experiments and their results. The great variety of scientific journals means that there is an academic journal for nearly any realm of science, from ecology to astronomy. Examples of journals where scientists might publish their findings include:
- American Journal of Public Health
- Astrophysics and Space Science
- British Medical Journal
- Journal of Ecology
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging
Scientific research writing is typically quite structured, formal, and detail-oriented. Scientific journal articles are generally comprised of five main components: 1) Abstract, which summarizes the purpose, process, and findings of the study, 2) Introduction, which details the background, rationale, and primary objectives of the article, 3) Methods section, which outlines the design of the study, the methods and equipment for measuring data, and justification for their use, 4) Results, which describes the outcome of the researcher’s experiment, and 5) Analysis, which analyzes the data relative to the projections 6) Discussion, which explains the significance of the study’s findings. In addition to these general structural guidelines, researchers often have to tailor their scientific writing to the formatting and other standards set forth by the journal(s) to which they submit their research.
The same principles apply to the grant proposals scientists must submit for funding—these proposals must likewise be formal and structured. Therefore, researchers must not only have a thorough knowledge of their topic of study, but also how to express their knowledge and insights in a way that is tailored to their target audience, be it a research funding institution or the readers of a scientific journal.
For some researchers, the writing, editing, and publication of their research can prove challenging. Therefore, some research institutions and universities have dedicated science writers for certain research departments, who help scholars translate their findings into publishable prose. In addition, some research institutions have dedicated grant/proposal writers who help scholars navigate the grant proposal writing and submission processes.
Unlike scientific research articles, whose target audiences are generally members of the scientific community, science journalism is defined as content written or created for the general populace regarding topics in science. Science journalism is an important field because it keeps the public informed of important discoveries and issues ranging from the philosophical to the highly practical. Examples of science journalism include but are not limited to:
- An article in The New York Times about global warming and its projected impact on our community.
- An article in Wired about the latest technological advancements in computer microchips.
- A special feature in TIME Magazine about artificial hearts and their use in surgical medicine.
- An investigative article on extinct species by National Geographic.
- An article and radio podcast on the plastics crisis in the U.S. and globally featured on National Public Radio and NPR.org.
Most major news outlets have a dedicated Science section that employs science journalists to select, research, write, and edit engaging content. Science journalists typically need to have a strong grasp of scientific concepts, as well as specialized knowledge in the areas about which they write most. Newspaper science departments will sometimes but not always have teams dedicated to particular types of science news article, from human health-related science to environmental science, scientific scholarship and discovery, and the intersection of science and society. In addition, publications such as the Scientific American and Popular Science are wholly dedicated to scientific concepts, discussions, and events.
Science marketing is defined as the creation of content such as print and online advertisements, advertising videos, blog posts, promotional items, brochures and other collateral, trade show booths, and social media posts that promote an organization’s science-related product, service, or mission statement. Examples of science marketing include:
- Content written for an environmental advocacy organization, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy, explaining the organization’s mission statement and using scientific evidence and statistics to illustrate the importance of this mission.
- Marketing content that describes the benefit of a device and accompanying app that helps people monitor health metrics such as heart rate, body temperature, hours of sleep, etc., and which cites scientific principles or studies to prove its point.
- Website content for a company that sells computer hardware, detailing instructions on how to use these devices while also promoting the benefits of this company’s products over its competitors (in this case, this content would be a combination of technical writing and marketing writing).
- An informational pamphlet on a new pharmaceutical drug, detailing its mechanisms within the body and how it is effective.
- A promotional video for an environmentally conscious company that details the company’s green production practices as an argument for consumer commitment.
Strong science marketing writers combine their knowledge of engaging writing with their understanding of how scientific concepts intersect with their company’s products, services, or core mission. In addition, as much of marketing is visual, practitioners of science marketing may need to be adept at translating complex scientific concepts relating to their company into visualizations (ex. charts, graphs, infographics, and interactive videos) that are easy for consumers to comprehend and act upon.
Science Public Relations
Science public relations is defined as the development of content such as press releases, white papers, newsletters, and social media posts for organizations that offer products or services that are scientific in nature. As a diverse field in its own right, an organization’s public relations is by necessity tailored to the company’s specific product/service, customers, and stakeholders/investors. Examples of public relations in the realm of science include but are not limited to:
- A press release addressing consumer and stakeholder concerns about defects in a new tech product.
- Newsletters, magazines, and exclusive content written for members of a science-related organization, such as the American Medical Association or the National Association of Environmental Professionals.
- A white paper detailing the science behind a new agricultural practice and its reduced impact on the environment.
Science public relations, in tandem with science marketing and technical writing, are important because they help to ensure the health of companies that then contribute to the economy. Moreover, public relations is a form of accountability that companies maintain with consumers and stakeholders, which is important from a societal perspective because it enhances trust between the public and organizations.
Communication for science education has always been a core part of primary, secondary, and higher education. However, recently it has played an increasingly important role as STEM fields continue to expand, bringing with them increased demand for jobs in areas such as computer and mechanical engineering, medicine, the natural sciences, and more. Science education is a broad field that encompasses science instruction in the classroom as well as Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) about everything from physics to molecular chemistry, ecology, and human nutrition. Examples of science communication include:
- The lectures and lecture slides that a physics professor writes/designs for his undergraduate physics classes.
- The textbooks that students purchase for their chemistry, physics, and biology classes.
- Science videos available on both public television or for purchase as part of a class session.
- The design of course content for an online class about human physiology.
Science education writing is similar to technical writing in that its main purpose is to relate information and teach its readers certain specialized knowledge. As such, the characteristics that distinguish good science education writing are similar to those that make good technical writing: clarity, relevant detail, and an attentiveness to the reader’s objectives in learning about a particular concept or skill. However, while technical communication tends to be very brief, science education communication can be longer and more detailed (such as in the case of textbooks, lectures, and in-depth videos). In addition, strong science education writing should engage the reader on a deeper level than does technical writing, as it is often more conceptual and is often delivered as part of an extended class session.
Education and Training in Science Communication
Professionals in science communication must combine in-depth knowledge of scientific concepts and issues with skills in writing, editing, and media production. As science communication is a diverse and expansive field with many sub-disciplines, there are a variety of programs at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate certificate levels that train people in scientific writing and communication.
Bachelor’s Programs in Science Communication
Bachelor’s degree programs in science communication are typically comprised of 120 to 160 course credits, and consist of both general education requirements and specialized courses. Examples of undergraduate programs in science communication include but are not limited to the following:
- Carnegie Mellon University’s Bachelor of Science in Technical Writing and Communication: This program offers two tracks, one in Technical Communication and one in Scientific and Medical Communication. Students can choose from courses in visual communication, software documentation, document planning, environmental rhetoric, medicine and society, language and culture, and more.
- University of Houston’s Bachelor of Arts in Health Communication: This program prepares students for careers as health communication specialists in environments such as hospitals, community organizations, and companies through classes in patient-provider communication, multicultural health communication, health campaigns, and health literacy.
- Michigan Tech University’s Bachelor of Arts/Science in Scientific and Technical Communication: This program includes classes in digital media, graphic and information design, technical and professional communication, usability and instructions, multimedia communication, and science writing to train students to become versatile communication professionals.
Master’s Programs in Science Communication
In general, master’s programs in science communication are comprised of between 30 and 36 course credits, and often include a thesis or a professional project as a culminating experience to the program. While a thesis is a formal research paper (which follows the structure outlined in the scientific research writing section above), a professional project typically takes the form of a written or multimedia work that is directly relevant to the student’s desired career.
The following table includes a comprehensive list of master’s programs in science communication offered nationwide.
To help illustrate the kinds of curricula students can expect in a master’s in science communication program, below are descriptions for a select number of programs:
- The University of California at Santa Cruz’s Master’s Program in Science Communication: Students of this program take intensive classes in science news reporting and editing, science feature writing, multimedia storytelling, investigative and policy reporting, and are also required to complete an immersive internship in settings such as newspapers, radio stations, and research institutions.
- New York University’s Master of Science in Science, Health & Environmental Reporting: This program features classes in writing and reporting, medical reporting, investigative science journalism, and special topics in science, environmental, and health reporting. It also includes an integrated internship experience in a setting that is tailored to the student’s interests and goals.
- Johns Hopkins University’s Master of Arts in Science Writing: Students of this program learn the techniques of creative and professional science writing through a combination of writing workshops, interdisciplinary courses in areas such as environmental science, policy, and biotechnology.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Master’s Program in Science Writing: This program trains students to have a diverse set of skills in science communication that can apply to a variety of advanced communication careers. Classes include advanced science writing seminars, lab experience for science writers, and science documentary, and culminate in a graduate thesis. For their electives, students can take relevant and approved courses from either MIT or Harvard.
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication: This program has both a thesis and a professional track to accommodate students who want to pursue scholarly or industry-focused work in life sciences communication. Students take classes in communication theory and research, statistics, research methodologies, and life science communication strategies, and can also incorporate classes from other departments to create a customized program of study.
Students interested in science communication should note that, as science communication is such a broad field, degree programs that prepare students for science communication careers range from programs in environmental and health science journalism to technical writing. Therefore, prospective students who are interested in a career in science communication should identify the specific fields within science communication that interest them, and research programs that are specific to these fields. (Note: For more information on master’s degree programs in environmental communication specifically, please refer to our Guide to Environmental Communication.)
Post-Graduate Certificate Programs in Scientific and Medical Communication
For students who hold a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree who do not want to pursue a full master’s program, there are post-graduate certificate programs. These maybe an especially good option for current PhD students as well as PhD graduates and post-docs who are interested in pursuing a career in science and/or medical communication. For these individuals, post-graduate certificate programs allow them to take specific classes that are tailored to their interests in health/medical communication and how it can be combined with their scientific or medical expertise. Certificate programs in science or medical communication are significantly shorter than master’s programs in communication. Moreover, many of them are offered online, which provides additional flexibility for students still earning their doctorate or PhD graduates who are working full-time while exploring a career transition.
Post-graduate certificate programs typically allow students to choose from a broad menu of advanced courses in science-related communication. While course offerings vary across programs, examples of classes that may be available through post-graduate certificate programs in science communication include courses in emerging media technologies in the scientific field, science writing, medical education, environmental communication, writing for biotechnology organizations, scholarly journal editing, and biomedical product promotion. Depending on an individual’s desired role in science communication, it may also be possible for them to take one or two courses of a post-graduate certificate program without having to complete the entire program.
A full list of post-graduate certificate programs in science communication is provided below:
For more information on post-graduate certificate programs in science communication (as well as a list of master’s degree programs in science communication), please refer to our FAQ on Graduate Certificate Programs in Science Writing, Communication and Journalism.
Examples of Courses in Science Communication
While the required courses for graduate programs in science communication vary according to students’ chosen specialization and the school at which they are enrolled, examples of courses that might comprise a master’s in science communication program include:
- Topics in Science, Environmental, and Health Journalism: This course provides an overview of key topics and developments in the scientific, health care, and environmental fields, giving students a strong foundation in important history and current events that will inform their work as writers. Students also learn how science writers conduct thorough research, analyze evidence, interact with scientists from different disciplines, and finally write and edit informative and impactful content.
- Science Writing Workshop: In this seminar, students learn the key elements of a compelling story, as well as the detailed steps and methodologies used to identify story leads, find relevant information, conduct interviews, and produce written and multimedia content. Students write numerous articles in this class and discuss them in a workshop environment, with the goal of publishing their best works.
- Technology and Tools for Science Writers: This course delves into the various multimedia tools that are available to science writers and content developers. Students practice using the latest technologies in the space to create visual and interactive content that explores important topics in science, medicine, and technology.
- Technical Writing and Editing: The skills, processes, and methods that are integral to writing technical and scientific content for publications such as medical journal articles, technical instructions, and journalistic articles on STEM subjects. Students learn how to create scientific and technical content for different audiences ranging from consumers to subject matter experts.
- Technical Communication Management: How to manage the technical content publication process from start to finish, including overseeing teams in the design, writing, editing, and publication of technical content. Students learn how to identify the needs of an organization and/or their readership, and to develop content that meets these needs.
- Techniques in Scientific and Medical Writing: In this class, students learn the principal skills and techniques employed by scientific and medical writers when covering topics such as biology, medicine, technology, and space. Through their assignments, students engage in many different types of science and medical writing, including literary non-fiction, journalistic articles, instructional material, and research writing.
- Patient-Provider Communication: This class covers the theories and methods that underpin effective patient-provider communication in all of its forms, from in-person appointments to written treatment instructions. Students observe doctors and nurses interacting with patients and their families, and discuss topics in patient-provider communication with these parties. The course culminates in a final report that analyzes and seeks to address challenges in patient-provider communication.
Professional Resources for Science Writers
In addition to the academic programs that are dedicated to training students in professional science communication, there are a number of professional associations that support science writers at any stage in their careers. These organizations may offer membership benefits such as continuing education classes, networking events, and advocacy for the profession.
- The National Association of Science Writers (NASW): NASW offers its members an exclusive jobs list, free access to scientific journals, fellowship and grant opportunities, and access to a network of fellow science writers and journalists.
- The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ): AHCJ is committed to promoting high quality medical journalism by building a community of medical writers and journalists and offering its members trainings and regional workshops, access to online writing and editing resources, career development services, and advocacy.
- The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA): AMWA offers its members the chance to attend exclusive conferences and events, certificate programs and other educational programming, job listings and an extensive professional network, and access to academic journals that are relevant to medical writers and journalists.
- The Society for Technical Communication (STC): The STC provides its members with access to a wealth of technical communication publications, educational and professional training materials, an annual professional conference, and the chance to add to their credentials through the Certified Professional Technical Communicator program.
Science communication in all its forms—from medical writing to technical publications and environmental advocacy—is an integral part of human history and civilization. It is the medium through which scientific and technological advancements are discussed, and also plays a crucial role in human health and medicine, environmental advocacy, and politics. Individuals who are interested in becoming science communication professionals must rely on a combination of in-depth scientific knowledge, research skills, and the ability to write clear, informative, and engaging content that enhances our understanding of the world around us. Through both professional and academic training, these individuals can have satisfying careers with far-reaching impact.