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How does Knowledge Deficit Model Impact Researchers

February 15, 2023

Pink mug on a pink desk with a book titled "Knowledge" to signify the study of the knowledge deficit model.

There is much to be said about the knowledge deficit model and its impact on how researchers and scientists think about communicating with the public. Get this: scientists more or less hold negative feelings about the public’s base scientific knowledge. To add insult to injury, researchers who already have negative views about their potential public audience may be less willing to publicly engage their research. 😢

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, considering the incentive structure for research faculty at institutions of higher education in the United States. They call it the ivory tower for a reason. Town and gown, etc etc. I just can’t imagine the personal evolution from entering graduate school to find answers only to eventually looking down upon the group of people your answers may help. I guess I see through rose-colored glasses. 

And the ethics of this is pretty shaky. The way in which we think about our publics, specifically our research subjects (if applicable), can impact the way we interpret data, among many other things. Your positionality between the data and the receiving public can impact the way in which you do (or do not) communicate. What you do or don’t communicate is also telling.   

Operating in a (knowledge) deficit

Table on Americans interest in various topics such as science, local events, and politics
Source: Pew Research Center

This phenomenon is not new. The knowledge deficit model basically states that the science/facts are established, and the experts just have to communicate it to the public. A public who so desperately needs it. The transfer of knowledge, if you will. It assumes a one-size-fits-all scientific communication message can and should meet the needs of many audiences. It also assumes that the scientific facts speak for themselves and exposure to said facts will automatically shift the audience’s views. (Who’s wearing rose-colored glasses now?!) Science and science communication is way more complex than this, yet the knowledge deficit model pretty much guides the epistemic approaches (and injustice) to knowledge creation. 

And yet, we see that most Americans are actually very into science!

This is just one study, yes. But it does present a side of the public we might not have considered. Most Americans do not obtain a college degree, let alone an advanced degree. But interest in science for adults supersedes interest in entertainment, sports, and the arts. So why is is it we assume they are not interested in science and research? 

Operating in a surplus

There is much to be said about assumptions of the public and its interest in knowledge. But we can’t allow that to hinder how we make an impact through our work. Combating the knowledge deficit approach requires a strategic approach to communication, not just because it is more efficient for you and your time, but because it requires thought, planning, and a feedback loop. 

We should seek to engage with the public instead of approaching science and research communication at a deficit. Talk with them. Learn from them. Science and research communication should promote, encourage and execute two-way communication. A relationship that is mutually beneficial. Research communication should not be about ‘teaching the world what you believe they don’t know’ or filling the gaps you assume may exist. It should be about working together to solve problems. This will inevitably benefit your research, communication skills, and empathy

Additionally, research and science training should expand beyond just teaching communications skills. (It’s a good thing our holistic approach to training covers this and more 😃). Treat science communication as an aspect of culture, sparking interest and curiosity by invoking emotions and as an experience. The Huberman Lab (podcast), The Gottman Institute (website), Science Sam (instagram), Brene Brown (books, podcast) and countless others created a culture around science, learning, and their research topics. 

We all (present company included) should reflect and reassess our preconceived notions about our publics. In These Times, the nature of social media and online culture with science and general human decency is fraught. Our institutions are facing threats of actual and theoretical dismantling. We must do what we can to build trust, come down from the ivory tower and into the town.

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

Welcome! Here you’ll find insight, musings, and thoughts about research, public engagement, communication, travel, and higher education. Have an idea for a topic for us to cover? Shoot us a note

Alicia Cintron, PhD

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