The pressure behind communicating science

Some notes on the workshop #wowk15 at the “Volkswagenstiftung” I was tweeting about this week (mainly in German). I would translate the title of the workshop “Researchers’ communication under pressure of public relations”.

There were several ideas and concepts nearly all of those who were there agreed on:
– Scientists and the science system, i.e. institutions, both share a responsibility to communicate.
– One should not only communicate results but the scientific process and the scientific principle as well. Science is all about doubt and not about certainty. Society should know this.
– There are intrinsic factors – at least in some fields – that lead either scientists or PR people, or sometimes both, to hype scientific results. These factors are, for instance, alarmism to get more funding, be it in climate science or health research; the reputation game and the idea that publicity also enhances scientific reputation; and the increasing tendency to rank and rate scientists according to metrics (which, in turn, leads to more publications, some of them hyping results, which subsequently creates media hypes).
– Hyping does not always help, especially not in peer-reviewed grant applications.
– Media, on the other hand, have a tendency to hype as well, sometimes by cherry-picking results or by reporting on poorly designed but somehow attractive health studies („Drinking red wine protects you from cancer“). Read here the interesting study by Petroc Sumner and his colleagues on hyping science in the field of health research.

There was an interesting remark by Petroc Sumner about hyping results and putting stuff directly online instead of offering it to media people (who might detect the hype): “Bypassing traditional channels, i.e. media, won’t help you because people won’t trust you anymore.” Or, as Hans Peter Peters from FZ Jülich put it: “The selection process by journalists cannot be substituted by a self-selection process by science (or science communication).”

In a small workshop I chaired within the conference we talked about the roles of institutional governance and scientists in the communication process. The President of the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Walter Rosenthal, said that the pressure to communicate has increased in the last decades. This is for one part due to external factors and for another part a matter of one’s personal career. The more political a scientist’s position is, the higher the pressure is to communicate. “You really start to feel the pressure once you are in a leading position”, said Walter Rosenthal.

Rosenthal sees communication as a means to be visible to stakeholders, such as politicians, and to pave the way for support. Part of this kind of science communication is to create a general basis of trust. Another part of it is directly related to specific projects or measures. In Jena, for instance, the university is planning a substantial enlargement of its campus with new buildings. Rosenthal: “There is a lot of politics involved. And this has to be explained to the public as well.” An important issue of this type of science communication is the fact that scientists or leaders of institutions are in turn helping science politicians to convince their peers in politics that funding for science is necessary despite competing interests in other fields of politics.

There also is, of course, the ever-present intrinsic motivation of scientists to talk about their work and the ever-present need to explain where taxpayers’ Euros went. Last but not least, society has questions to be answered, be it vaccines, climate change or other pressing issues about environment, health, and societal issues.

Apart from these well-known and much cited reasons to communicate, my friend and former colleague Carsten Hucho mentioned another reason: Science as such is important for a society and needs to be funded without asking for direct revenues. Scientific thinking formed cultures in many parts of the world. Visible and successful science makes a society attractive. Science as a cultural achievement with an intrinsic value needs to be communicated, too, said Carsten.

P.S.: I am writing this in English as a courtesy to all the non-German scientists who answered on my last entry and the second to last.

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