8 maart, 2023

Science Communication in a future with Open Science, Recognition and Rewards, Team Science, etc. – a brief introduction

In this blog I will try to summarize – as briefly as I can – how the big developments in science affect science communication (‘scicom’), and then propose a way of dealing with this new situation, from the perspective of a science press officer at an academic institution.

Developments in science and science communication

Open Science

Open Science means a lot of things, but for science communication it means an opportunity. If we really aim to make everything from protocols to data sets publicly accessible, we also need to empower and educate the non-scientific community so that they are able to use these open data sets etc. Scicom can, or should I say has to, play a major role here. The NPOS (Nationaal Platform Open Science) is also starting to recognize this, and as a field we need to keep finding this synergy.

Recognition and Rewards

There are a lot of things that ‘we’ (as institutions, society) ask from scientists, and we also see that this is too much and needs a new approach. Hence Recognition and Rewards: let’s look at all the output that a scientist has, and value all of that for what it is. Science Communication has so far not been included in this movement very clearly. Which is strange to me, because we do ask a lot from scientists in this regard as well; they have to be visible, appear in the media, participate in outreach activities, etc. But we’re not giving them much credit for it, let alone support them in learning how to do it, or back them when things go wrong or they get threatened (this is slowly starting to change).  

Team Science

Scientists shouldn’t have to be five-legged sheep – or six or seven-legged. So we should value different talents in different people and bring them together to form teams that cover the entire range of desired talents and required skills. Science communication could be one of these skills that one (or some) scientist in a team has. Though there are some questions to ask about this, it also means not every scientist should have to do scicom.

Peer review

Peer review as ‘gold standard’ of quality control is increasingly being criticized, which is one of the reasons preprints have taken a flight. It seems reasonable to assume that preprints will only become more important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge. This makes life harder for science communication advisors, press officers and journalists, since they will have to rely on their own knowledge about the topic to see whether a publication is worth their time and effort. (It’s not as if peer review is now a flawless ‘seal of approval,’ but at least it shifted responsibility for the ‘correctness’ away from press officers and journalists.) Now that this is changing, the judgment of a paper’s quality or potential could move closer to the scientists, who may have to decide themselves whether it is worth an effort, f.i. towards media.

Scicom from one-way to two-way communication

Science communication is, for a while now, increasingly moving upstream in the scientific process. This also has to do with the move from the deficit model, which views scicom as a one-way form of communication ‘to inform the public,’ to the dialogue model, which sees scicom as a way of science and society being in touch. When scicom is bidirectional, it opens up the way to including citizens’ or patients’ perspectives and needs at the start of research, rather than merely communicating about the results at the end. There is a less visible but major benefit here: proper scicom will also make sure science is more inclusive, and that research is aimed at the benefit of all people in society.

Funding agencies and governments demand ‘impact’ from science

There is a growing demand from funding agencies to explain why the proposed research is relevant, and what will come out of it – its impact. Science communication plays a big role in connecting the science itself with the effects that it could/would/should have in society, and thus more scicom expertise is needed in the grant writing process, hence a service that may be moving into the research support offices too. Don’t take my word for it; science communication is increasingly mentioned in reports and plans by NWO and KNAW for example.

The national center for science communication

The Netherlands is setting up a National Center for Science Communication (and actually, the EU is too). While it’s still being decided what the focus and activities of the center will be, it’s likely that it will have a sort of ‘meta’ function. Not producing or communicating itself, but helping the field find each other. And, I suspect, taking a role in shaping policy around scicom that will help all the academic institutions that are now piecing it together for themselves (though this will become clear in May 2023).

Diversifying target audiences

When I critically ask scientists who they want to communicate to, it’s hardly ever ‘the general public.’ It’s mostly peers, companies, colleague, certain professionals, politicians, students or patients. The question then becomes what the best way is to reach those audiences, and mass communication is less and less likely to be the best answer. When we acknowledge this, it means that we have to target audiences more specifically, and thus cater to the needs of individual scientists more.

Rise of social media

The rise of social media has made it possible for scientists to build their own audience, and to create their own networks. They can communicate to anyone they like, and even stay up to date with news from their field if they follow the right peers. With these audiences and accounts in place, it does not always make sense to try the mass media for communication, or to set up new social media accounts. This means that the source is shifting to the scientists themselves. Of course, an important note is that social media is bidirectional as well, and people can and will talk back. In some cases, this can be quite threatening and aggressive.

An added benefit of social media is that it contains a lot of pre-made target audiences around highly specific topics; there can be a YouTube channel about a certain disease, or a science show with millions of followers. These offer huge opportunities if they align with the goals of the scientist.

Implications for science communication

What does this all mean for scicom? If you take these developments to their logical conclusion, a few things become obvious:

  • (Teams of) scientists are becoming the source of science communication, also carrying the initiative and responsibility (though not all scientists will be involved in this).
  • Science communication officers or practitioners (who now lack the capacity to serve the whole organization) will be more concerned with the strategy and skills, enabling the scientists to do science communication and producing less themselves.
  • Scicom becomes more embedded in the science process, needing policy input from the institution’s C-level and bodies like the National or European Centers for scicom.

Scicom by scientists, guided by the comms dept.

So, how do I see science communication in the future (also inspired by a few ideas shared below)? Well, as a discipline it’s being stretched out and dispersed; we need to follow this, and bring agency to the places where it’s needed. In short: scientists are going to do more of the communicating, and the communication department is there to help them with it.

Scientists working in teams will have one or a few team members who spend a small amount of their time doing scicom. This entails the basics; social media, the impact section of grant proposals, press releases, articles for the website, etc. They will also decide which papers or projects are suitable to communicate about, which solves the issue of disappearing peer review; now you can have an expert scrutinizing the communication potential. They are also the liaisons for the communications department.

Instead of science press officers who take work out of the hands of scientists, I see them becoming coaches. Their role is to advise and help the scientists with more advanced scicom. Perhaps giving or arranging training, dealing with the media, proof reading texts, thinking about impact plans and what needs to be done for that, and liaising with technical expertise – freelancers and the central communication department will remain valuable for their technical work on f.i. graphic design and programming. The consequence is that scicom will be an activity that is much more distributed throughout the organization, and this means that it benefits from coaches that are close to the scientists.

Of course, changes like this take time, and it makes sense to allow for these changes in step with the progress in team science, R&R, etc. The first step I would propose is for PhD students to get the opportunity to experiment with scicom. They should have the option to spend one or two hours per week on this. They can be the feelers, the antenna in their group, and notify science press officer when needed, perhaps already drafting up some texts themselves. As they advance through their career, becoming more comfortable with this, they (and their results) will become important influencers within the scientific community for this change. And having these diverse skills will make them more valuable as team members.

What could that look like in practice? Here are some inspiring blogs that we shared before:

Embedded science communication professionals are the future

Towards a public engagement stewardship model

And Maastricht University installed a scicom incubator, with more background here (in Dutch).

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