Embedded science communication professionals are the future
We want science to have maximum societal impact. To get there, we need science communication (scicom). Good scicom! Scicom with high ambitions, a defined mandate, dedicated resources, expertise, and recognition for such expertise. How do we get there? One way is through promoting a new kind of scicom professional.
Here, we propose an embedded role in which the science communicator works closely together with scientists and societal partners, to facilitate dialogue and mutual engagement. Embedded scicom professionals would then also play an important role in the Recognition & Rewards and Open Science developments.
Mandatory science communication (scicom): good, but not enough
Scicom is increasingly becoming an important part of research and a requirement to obtain research funding. The European Union demands impact and communication plans for all their Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe projects. This international trend is also reflected in the Netherlands by the national science funding organization NWO’s vision for 2030 and by the ambition to establish a national expertise center for science communication.
Although we fully support this trend to make scicom mandatory for publicly funded research, the execution of these plans is often still inadequate. Communication and impact sections of scientific proposals are often written by researchers with little to no expertise in communication. Often, they either plan to do the bare minimum of what is required, or propose overly ambitious, usually also vaguely defined communication strategies. Additionally, there are also no standards that define ‘good’ scicom, and as such there is limited accountability or consequences for bad or minimal scicom.
It is therefore not very surprising that scientists tasked to work on complex scientific and technical problems within these projects can’t find the time and/or find it not rewarding enough to do science communication on top of their work or even instead of the research.
The embedded scicom professional
Things are changing, fortunately, with dedicated science communication calls, training modules, e-learnings that guide proposal writers through societal impact plans, and awards that recognize citizen engagement. However, doing good scicom requires time and expertise. Something that cannot be expected from scientists alone.
Ideally, each project involves a scicom professional that is embedded in the scientific work: someone who understands the ins and outs of the scientific environment and sees the challenges and opportunities. Being embedded would also empower the communicator to focus on goals such as societal engagement, inclusion of experience experts (i.e. patients or end users) and relationship building with stakeholders who are harder to reach.
Based on our own current positions we want to reflect on the advantages and challenges of embedded scicom professionals.
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Frederike Schmitz (PhD) is a senior science communication advisor at Catalyze. Catalyze is a science consultancy company that specializes in helping researchers and innovators applying for (EU) funding, but also for managing such large projects. Catalyze has a designated science communication team helping with the communication and dissemination of such projects. Frederike creates and implements the communication strategy of the projects, either as a partner or on a commercial basis.
Jeanette Mostert (PhD) is a science communication advisor within the multifactorial genetics research group at the Radboudumc in Nijmegen. She is involved in several EU-funded and NWO-funded projects, where she leads the communication strategies and activities. She combines this task with teaching at Biomedical Sciences, where she aims to include scicom and the voice of the patient in courses at both the Bachelor’s and Master’s level.
Our positions as dedicated scicom professionals within research projects come with several advantages. Firstly, as trained researchers we can easily collaborate with scientists and help them to communicate. Jeanette - who works at a research department - is closer to the everyday life of the ‘science’ she communicates about. As an external partner, Frederike must keep a broader overview. However, not being an expert in a field can also be an advantage, as you can ask more basic questions and you are more aware of jargon and technical terms. In addition, Frederike can give “neutral” advice to project partners.
A second advantage is that we can actively involve researchers in the communication activities. That can be blog writing, creating videos, participating in science cafes or facilitating discussions in advisory and focus groups. By providing support and advice, we help researchers to experience the value of doing good scicom.
The third main advantage is time and resources. Scicom is more than writing newsletters and posting on social media. But drafting a strategy, doing a proper stakeholder analysis, building relationships to achieve meaningful engagement, creating compelling materials and activities, evaluating impact – this all requires ambition, time, and dedicated resources. Instead of adding scicom to the already full plate of a project manager or PhD student, an embedded scicom professional can bring scicom to the next level and make scicom an opportunity instead of a burden.
You might argue that knowledge institutions have communication departments who can take up these tasks. However, communication departments also deal with internal, student and alumni communication, student recruitment as well as with marketing and valorization. Long-term scicom activities often exceed their budget, mandate and/or capacity for professional support (see SciCom NL board member Roy’s blog ‘Recognition and Appreciation and university science communication’). We therefore envision that embedded scicom professionals are the ones to bridge the gap between researchers and society.
Although we advise every ambitious research project to embed a scicom professional, we do see some hurdles that need to be overcome before this can be implemented on a large scale. The first one is money. Embedded scicom professionals don’t work for free, so proposals need to allocate sufficient funds to hire these individuals. The Recognition & Rewards and Open Science developments can provide opportunities for research groups to make scicom an integral part of their daily life (think team science!).
The second hurdle is training and recognition. Many (ex-)researchers currently doing scicom were never formally trained in this. We learned by doing, struggling along the way, and often re-inventing the wheel. Scicom should therefore be a more integral part of academic education. Not every researcher needs to be a scicom professional, but those that are interested should be able to specialize in this direction. We see many opportunities for the national expertise center for science communication to fill this training gap. In line with this, a more formalized job description of embedded scicom professionals can also help to delineate career paths. Jeanette basically invented her own job and experienced many hurdles in terms of contracts along the way. Officially she is part of the academic staff and then it’s very difficult to get a permanent position if you don’t do research. She now obtained a teaching position that she combines with science communication work.
Lastly, the lack of good standards and practices makes the discussion between researchers, funders and sciom professionals very diffuse, and hinders Recognition and Rewards.
Our glimpse into the future of scicom
Fortunately, a lot of things are happening at institutional, national and international level that have the potential to strengthen embedded scicom professionals. We have already mentioned the Recognition & Rewards movement, Open Science programs and the national expertise center for science communication. These movements call for weakening the boundaries between science and society, for bridging the current gap and including each other's perspectives and expertise. In short: for working together. We believe that an embedded scicom professional is ideally suited to take up and coordinate these efforts.
What is needed now is that scicom professionals, as well as policy makers and front runners of the Recognition & Rewards and Open Science communities get together and define these updated scicom tasks, roles, and standards. We need to think broader about what’s needed from science communication in Open Science and for Recognition and Rewards. We need to increase the visibility of scicom as a profession. Together, we can move the field forward and ensure that people see the value of good science communication in academia, industry and at NGOs.
Do you also consider yourself an embedded scicom professional?
Let us know what you do, and what your challenges and hurdles are. Reach out via Twitter (@AnalyticTransl and @MostertJeanette) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).