Cracking the Code: A Science Media — Research Collaboration

Final thoughts and takeaways

This article is one of a multipart series exploring the unique media practitioner-academic research collaboration of Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement (CTC) a three year Advancing Informal STEM Learning Innovations (AISL) research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) between KQED, a public media company serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas Tech and Yale universities. KQED has the largest science reporting unit in the West focusing on science news and features including their YouTube series Deep Look.

The author, Scott Burg, is a Senior Research Principal with Rockman et al.

A successful collaboration

Both KQED and Texas Tech University came away from the Cracking the Code (CTC) collaboration with a greater understanding and appreciation for the complexity and nuance of conducting audience research. Each team recognized the advantages and limitations of applying different research strategies, both quantitative and qualitative. Members of the research team placed more value on the media practitioner’s professional experience and knowledge as a tool to conduct research, while KQED science staff discerned that science communication research was as much a “process” as producing a science series or developing an investigative story feature.

Even through a global pandemic, wildfires, corporate reorganizations, layoffs, and a shift to online academic classes and restrictions in conducting face-to-face research in the academic space, the collaborative framework and trust between the partners strengthened, and research activities continued, almost unabated. The collaboration was flexible (and risk averse) enough to incorporate the participation of additional research consultants, and the inclusion of new and innovative methods of data collection tools and methods to deepen the work. In addition, while working on CTC, the same collaborative team also conducted parallel research activities associated with an NSF-funded RAPID/AISL grant exploring science communication methods influencing millennials and young adults’ science engagement focused on COVID-19 media.

Formative work

Building an effective practitioner — research collaborations requires focused preparation, training and communication. To be successful, it is imperative that participants plan sufficient time at the beginning of any collaboration to focus on how to effect shared learning, advance communication methods, and develop relationships before initiating research activities. Many of the workflow and miscommunication issues that occurred during CTC’s early phases could have been avoided had both sides spent more formative time on training, education and planning, in particular with both Deep Look and science news staff.

Project partners should always conduct continual reassessments of research design, methods and timetables. This can lead to a co-developed research framework that incorporates feedback from both practitioner and research teams. This process helps to ensure that both sides’ needs are heard and addressed, recognizes the expertise and knowledge of both the practitioner and researcher, and facilitates buy-in and commitment to consensus building and completion of project activities.


Practitioners and researchers alike need time to process the very detailed and sometimes inconclusive results that drive both the research and practice of science communication. The volume and diversity of CTC research and reports was impressive, probably greater in number and scope than for most NSF-funded studies. This level of research activity, however, is unsustainable over a multiyear period. Building in regular opportunities for processing and contextualizing study results is imperative if these types of collaborations are to succeed and be sustained.

An effective practitioner-researcher collaboration is one that builds on reflection so that researchers might help practitioners enhance the reflective process (leading to actionable outcomes). By building time for reflection, the practitioner-researcher relationship shifts from one in which the practitioner is the audience to one in which the practitioner is a partner in knowledge development. In this reflective process, the researcher also learns how their work can be more actionable and relevant to the practitioner.

Reporting and dissemination

Planning for reporting and dissemination needs to be front and center on the minds of both practitioners and researchers. These are not activities that can be lightly undertaken. Even in the project’s final year, disagreements between KQED and the research team continued over report duration, formatting, design, timing, and analysis. Much of this tension reflected some fundamental differences in reporting between the two teams. The KQED team was more familiar with reporting driven by deadlines and more action oriented, while the research team comes from an environment where research is predicated by peer review, and careful, often very time-consuming data analysis.

Future collaborations of this kind should include creation of working groups between practitioners and researchers to recommend guidelines for all key activities related to project reporting and dissemination. To achieve this, participants should initiate an ongoing process that involves consideration of target audiences, and the settings and methods in which research findings are to be received. Dissemination needs to go beyond traditional academic publishing and meetings to achieve broader research uptake and understanding through the co-creation of a communication strategy among project participants.

Goals for a broader communications strategy, which the CTC collaboration did implement to large degree, should include:

  • Disseminate knowledge and findings that can raise awareness and application of the project’s basic research.
  • Disseminate lessons and effective practices learned related to these types of collaborations so that other practitioners and research organizations and community groups might adapt elements from this model.
  • Provide participants with opportunities for applied learning that contextualizes findings from the research that leads to actionable outcomes.
  • Identify key dissemination partners and opportunities outside of the project’s immediate partners and collaborators.

To be continued

The success of the CTC collaboration offers the potential for further types of these research opportunities. Science media practitioners and science communication researchers need to find ways to address long-standing cognitive and process differences, and overcome thinly informed assumptions to jointly conduct activities that benefit the field and the public at large.

It is assumed that not all differences between practitioners and researchers can be overcome, nor should they be. CTC has demonstrated the power of creative tension to stimulate innovative thinking and problem solving. In many respects the diversity of experience and knowledge among the participants enabled the CTC collaboration to flourish despite internal differences and having to operate in an unpredictable and unprecedented external environment.

Personal note

On a personal note, I’d like to thank project participants from KQED, Texas Tech and Yale universities for their extraordinary cooperation, honesty and insight in support of this process evaluation. It has been a rare privilege to have had such open and unfettered access to the inner workings (and thoughts) of such a complex and multifaceted project. This three-year experience has also deeply impacted my own work and thinking about the nature of research, evaluation and relationships.

I hope it has influenced your thinking as well.



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