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15 februari, 2024

Science Communication Rewarded: Science is a Circus!

Former U-Today columnist Femke Nijboer was invited to attend the UT workshop ‘Science communication rewarded’ (25th of January) and write about it. She went there with gloomy thoughts, but came out with a sense of hope: ‘Science is a circus. Our circus. Let’s open the doors’.

‘Science is just an opinion.’

‘Scientists say it’s not certain so it’s not true.’

‘Scientists are humorless people; they don’t know how to make fun.’

‘Scientists say things that everybody already knows, in a language that no one understands.’

‘Scientists have a hidden agenda.’

‘Scientists live in an ivory tower.’

In recent years I’ve heard such statements more often in society. I’ve read them in the newspaper, heard them when I saw protests on television, and also heard them right in my face at a birthday party.

Let’s admit it: science has a bit of an image problem. And not only is it an image problem. It’s worse than that. Society is actually right about some of these things. Scientists can communicate more clearly; science should be more open and – please oh yes please  – scientists should crack more jokes.

Society is not right about the ivory tower though…. Science to me feels more like a circus! It is a feast of wonder. All kinds of curiosities, rarities and novelties can be seen. All kinds of circus artists create the show. An introvert biologist who can tell you everything about slugs. A jumpy PhD student who will tell you all about her work on cybersecurity. A researcher from the Design Lab who uses Nemo science museum to start a citizen science project. All of these artists together make the show. 

The University of Twente and organizations like KNAW and NWO know this and want to make the feast more accessible. In recent years, science communication is becoming more important. You need to include a plan for it in your research proposals, you need to do it as a university, you need to show it as a job applicant.

However, while better communication is greatly appreciated outside the university, communication and public engagement are not always valued within the university.

The recognition and rewards program of the University of Twente decided to do something about this. They invited a theater maker, Frank Kupper to give an interactive theater workshop on how we can better integrate science communication in our work as scientists. It took place last week and I was invited to do the intro and write a column about what I saw.

Frank as his crew of actors led us, roughly 30 UT colleagues, through different scenarios and dilemma’s. How to deal with colleagues who think less of you when you engage in non-serious communication, such as going to the Zwarte Cross? How to deal with a department chair who sends flowers when you publish a paper, but not when you write a blog for an online newsletter of a patient organization?

To be honest, I was pessimistic when the workshop started. Making a career as a scientist feels like having to jump through a lot of hoops. However, we are not all tigers in the circus. Certainly, I am not a tiger. I feel more like a joker or wait – yes - an acrobat who is doing the splits. During the day I do the things that are in the UFO profile (education, research) and at night I do public engagement. With your legs spread - pardon the obscene image that I might instill in your mind- you can’t jump through hoops at all. The circus director shakes his head. I feel like an idiot.

But by the time the theater workshop ended, I was optimistic. The actors played scenes in which we made it possible. We laughed a lot and were sometimes also deeply moved by sketches. I saw how my UT colleagues in the audience gave very helpful suggestions to the actors. This then changed the ending of the scene. Right in front of us, we saw and rehearsed how we could shape the culture at the university. It left me with hope and renewed love for science. Science a circus. Our circus. Let’s open the doors. 

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