Millions for science communication: 'It's important to show what scientists do'

UU social psychologist Madelijn Strick is one of the two experts advising the NWO on science communication. Photo: Studium Generale

A shift is occurring in the world of academia. Not all scientists need to be featured in top academic journals, contrary to previously-held popular belief. Under the moniker ‘recognition and reward’, more attention is being paid to other tasks, such as teaching and science communication, i.e. the sharing of knowledge with the general public.

As a result, shifts are also expected to take place in budget allocation. Research financier Dutch Research Council (NWO) and science association Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) have each budgeted 1 million euro for science communication.

As always, scientists applying for NWO funding must submit a solid proposal. The organisation will be announcing the first recipients at the end of this month. The idea is to measure the impact of science communication, which is why the organisation has asked two experts to develop a toolbox for this purpose. After all, you may have great ideas on how to reach the general public, but will they have the expected impact? Actually, how do you determine whether your idea had an impact among the general public at all?

One of them is Utrecht-based social psychologist Madelijn Strick, who blogs for DUB’s Dutch page. Strick has been conducting research into this topic for many years. She isn’t sure whether science communication is the right term. She prefers to call it public engagement. “The term science communication is reminiscent of lectures, guided tours and radio interviews that we hope will leave some lasting impression on the audience. We actually need to go a few steps further: it is important for people to get involved.”

Strick believes that talking to people improves one’s research. “You not only share your expertise, but you also get inspired. You can find out whether your research evokes a response in people and which subjects are sensitive.”

To illustrate her point, she mentions a video she made in Utrecht involving people from various demographics. She asked them questions such as “who among you is in love?” or “who among you has ever been denied entrance to a nightclub?” to demonstrate that they had more in common with each other than they might have thought. As a result, participants acquired a new perspective on others. “That way, you achieve more than simply studying views and opinions.”

But the traditional type of science communication is also growing in popularity, thanks to enthusiasts eager to share their own wonderful scientific journeys. These are people that make you want to become a scientist yourself, says Strick.

Marieke Kamperman, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Groningen, is a good example of such a person. Her research focuses on strong materials. She has a wonderful way of telling pupils how strong a spider’s thread is and what a marvellous mystery this material is: for a brief moment it is fluid and then suddenly, as if by magic, it becomes thin and strong.

The professor may be eligible for a grant from the new KNAW fund, for which applications may be submitted until mid-January 2021. This KNAW fund differs from NWO calls in that only deans are able to apply. Also, the grant is only open for groups consisting of at least three researchers. But the most important condition is that the study should already be underway, as is the case for Professor Kamperman.

“I just really enjoy explaining my job to pupils. I just sort of fell into this line of work. I worked in Wageningen for a while, where they had a science hub (link in Dutch) that paired scientists up with schools. I discovered that this type of work makes me feel energised, so I became very motivated to continue on this path. One thing I like to tell pupils is that geckos can walk on the ceiling: how do they do that exactly?”

She estimates that her educational activities take up at least one-tenth of her time. “But it feels like no time at all.” The professor also believes that talking about science with pupils may inspire them in their future careers. “When we work on a glue for wet tissue, it may be suitable for use in surgery. Timely involvement of surgeons in your research is useful in this case.”

The two grants mentioned do not include research and advice on behalf of the government or the business community, as that’s a type of science communication that has already been traditionally used and had a big impact on society. However, the policy adopted during the coronavirus crisis reveals that the government continues to rely on a panel of experts whose job is to explain their expertise to laypeople.

Although it makes sense for the government and the business community to reach out to scientists for advice on occasion, it sometimes seems like their reason for doing so is to legitimise their own point of view: “look everyone, science is on our side!” It is not surprising, therefore, that this approach often gets criticised. How impartial are scientists who serve as professional advisors? Can they be influenced and, if so, to what extent? Perhaps they are simply doing the dirty work of politicians and entrepreneurs?

Grey area
Strick believes that scientists should carefully consider this grey area. “But that’s easy for me to say, because I do not write policy recommendations. My line of work is far removed from politics. I write about living a healthier and happier life... a topic generally without opposing views.”

Kamperman also acknowledges that science communication is about more than just the joys of sharing knowledge. One needs to consider how the information will be used to force the world in a specific direction. Ethical issues are at play in some disciplines – which is why outsiders are needed for a proper discussion, she says,

This is where science communication and, by extension, open science come in. Kamperman: “It is important to show society what scientists do exactly.”