This is a response to a comment on LinkedIn from Prof. Alexander Gerber on my video interview for the EMBL careers blog. Please go read his comment first. Otherwise my response here might not make much sense.

Thank you for your long comment, Alexander. We are both proponents of the professionalisation of science communication. In fact, the mission of my employer, the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) is to help scientists to communicate better and all our activities have the aim to increase and foster their communication competences.

The professionalisation of science communication also includes nurturing its academic discipline and translating the findings of the science of science communication into practice. Very relevant for me, there is even the science of science communication training. This recently published book has contributions from both theory and practice.

In my opinion, professionalising science communication also means implementing an incentive-and-reward system for communicating scientist of all disciplines. It means establishing evaluation criteria for engagement activities by funders and employers. The professionalisation of science communication also includes support services, such as the science media centre.

Alexander, the YouTube interview you are basing your comment on, is essentially the uncut version of an interview I gave for a blogpost on career alternatives for the EMBL careers blog. The EMBL is a world-leading research institute specialising in basic research in the life sciences, funded by public funds from more than 20 member states. More than 800 staff work at their headquarters in Heidelberg, probably the same number of scientists are employed at their five outstations. 

The blogpost was essentially targeted to late stage PhD students and postdocs at EMBL who would like to get an overview of career alternatives beyond academic research. Working in science communication is perceived as one such alternative, and my interview was one example for someone who – as an EMBL alum – has made this move. 

My personal experience with blogging for a dozen years now, the many discussions with friends and colleagues who actively communicate science – and often perform research at the same time; the feedback from the participants of almost 100 days of communication training for scientists over the past five years, as well as numerous examples and statements in books and blogs and in the scientific literature (see here for a recent one) confirm my points: 

  • Online media and the rise of science engagement events have made it very easy for scientists to start communicating science to a wider audience.
  • In addition to external reasons (to give back to society, to educate) and personal reasons (because my funder asks me to do so, to advance my career, to get feedback from others), scientists often report to simply enjoy communicating. 
  • Someone with a PhD in molecular biology does explicitly not need to graduate from a structured science communication degree programme before she can start to engage with audiences beyond her peers. 
  • The professionalisation of our field increases with more scientists with different backgrounds entering. (Please send me a link to this study listing the 600 degree programs, once published. I am happy to pass it on when asked for career advice.)
  • And yes, someone with a cell biology background and an interest in science communication can often explain better her research topic in particular and her field in general, than someone who enjoyed formal education in science communication and now needs to start understanding how cells work.

Alexander, I believe your comment was an attempt to promote evidence-based science communication and to criticise amateurish engagement attempts by scientists without an academic background in your field (for their own protection). What your comment instead does, is to promote an elitist view of science communication, handing the prerogative to communicate science to a select few.

Scientists of all disciplines are part of society and damn well should engage with friends, family, their communities and beyond, be it online or offline. Science literacy is low. We need voices of reason and engaged experts. Because the climate change deniers, fake news sellers, alternative medicine quacks and sugar pill believers will certainly not be deterred by your professional standards.

Bild: George Caleb Bingham: stump speaking (Wikimedia Commons)

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3 Kommentare

  1. Thanks so much for your reply, Tobias. With 88 reactions to the original commentary in just a few days, we are surely addressing an under-researched topic. As already expected, I very much agree with many of your remarks in the above reply, yet not with all of them, which you have probably similarly expected. 😉
    It goes without saying that we should encourage researchers to engage with lay audiences (and I hope you also agree that those should definitely not just be from STEM; see my previous comments about the deficits and distortions in perception and communication of social sciences and humanities). I also trust that we are fully in agreement that professionalisation in scicomm must comprise more than such personal engagements, e.g. considering science advocacy and diplomacy; didactically profound tactics for informal science education; investigative analyses of how academia operates behind the curtain (what we used to call journalism), etc.
    I was of course not trying to suggest that researchers should not engage without formal training, but rather (i) that such engagement can always only be one element in a much larger picture of where we need scicomm to take effect; (ii) without evaluating those individual engagements we may not pretend to know how effective they were, and finally (iii) that not all public communication by researchers is necessary serving the goals you are describing above (e.g. “deterring climate change deniers”) but is potentially even counter-productive in a sense of ‘well-meant but misled’.
    As Kathleen Hall-Jamieson, Dan Kahan, and Dietram Scheufele have concluded in their highly recommendable “Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication” (2017, p. 30), the “deficit model misconception [has] proven particularly difficult to dispel both from the communication models and from the scientific community. […] Lay logic suggests that improving science education should help promote a scientifically literate citizenry that values the principles of scientific inquiry. However, the empirical evidence does not indicate that public education efforts will invariably yield support or engagement in the scientific advancement. It is also tempting to supplement knowledge with trust as a singular predictor of perceptions about scientific issues.”
    What really matters most here, is less the activity of ‘engaging’ but the question about the underlying rationale of doing so. I can hardly put it any better than Brian Trench in his seminal “Analytical Framework” paper (2008). He takes the UK initiative “Sense About Science” as an example, an initiative which is dedicated to ‘work with scientists to respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology’, very similar to the goals you are suggesting above, Tobias. Brian reminds us that “the priority attached to this enterprise encourages a form of public communication that is inevitably didactic rather than dialogical”, which then is not the form of upstream engagement we intend to foster through professionalisation, knowing how ineffective (or not knowing how effective) if not counter-productive it can be. Brian continues a couple of pages later “The influence among scientific communities of scientism (the belief that science is the superior knowledge system […]) may well be the key factor in the shaping of dissemination as a deficit model. Wynne (2006) maintains that scientism is the ideological underpinning of the common characterization of certain public dispositions as ‘anti-science’.” This obviously relates directly to your comment above about the “Quacks”.
    I wanted to thank you a lot for adding the very important point about professionalisation requiring an…
    > incentive-and-reward system [… and]
    > evaluation criteria for engagement activities
    As already outlined in our scicomm Trend Study (2011), the very structures and processes in today’s system of research only rarely assess, acknowledge and incentivise non-academic impact of research when it comes to evaluating grant proposals or applications for tenure.
    Having said this, however, let me once again caution against the shortcut to assess / acknowledge / incentivise ANY form of engagement as long as researchers just engage. Almost all RFOs have meanwhile learned this the hard way. Almost all funders in the past have reserved a certain portion for dissemination activities, only to find out later that those funds have often been wasted on overpriced corporate design manuals or tokenistic promotion events. Hence my conclusion that a researcher can only be sure to include an appropriately professional communication work package in a grant proposal if s/he has a certain amount of specialised knowledge about scicomm, e.g. about stakeholder analyses and anticipatory governance of sci/tech; social science evaluation methodologies and Theory of Change; methods of participation and deliberation, or a basic understanding of attitude formation and cognitive biases in processing whatever information the researcher intends to share later. The same, albeit on a smaller scale of course, goes for a single researcher simply wanting to share their results, whereas the first question would be whether the ‘results’ stage is actually too far downstream to engage in a way that really puts public interests at the heart of the respective research.

    You are saying that…
    > someone with a cell biology background […] can often explain better her research topic […] than someone who enjoyed formal education in science communication […]
    No, Tobias, I am afraid I have to disagree: Two of the arguments I tried to get to across in my commentary are: (i) After decades of STS research on how ‘meaning is constructed’ compared to ‘information being transferred’, communication cannot and must not be limited to “explaining science”; (ii) Since formally trained science communicators nowadays also have a background in one or even several scientific disciplines, they can actually excel at combining both: (a) their insights and skills in communication with (b) the expertise in a certain field. Even more importantly, however, as already partly suggested in my commentary last week, I have witnessed, by working with lots of generations of scicomm students and also participants in shorter CPD trainings, that a natural science background often frames a person’s perspectives and attitudes in such a way that it can impede comprehension let alone design of qualitative analyses of social behaviour. This also includes the capability and reflexivity of ‘ELSI-fying’ your own work as e.g. a biochemist. A trade-off, so to speak, where colleagues lack or even loose certain antennas the more deeply they dig into a particular scientific field. Certainly, a research topic worth investigating. Anyone up for it? 😉
    This comment was also posted in the thread of the original commentary here:

  2. Suggested edit to the blog post: the ‘teaching & training’ study we are writing up right now, did not analyse 600 “programmes” but “module descriptions” (i.e. a systematic qualitative content analysis; see the original post). I’m happy to look up the exact numbers again next week in the office, but from the top of my head, there are about 90 programmes worldwide in about 20 different countries. More details to follow soon…

  3. As an update to the above-mentioned global study on scicomm teaching & training: as far as I can see from the latest dataset (as of 20th Oct 2019), we have analysed 1316 scicomm modules in 89 degree programmes from 23 countries, offered by 73 institutions in 8 different languages. Publication forthcoming (open access, open data, open methodology).

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