[Theme in Focus] Science Communication, WBC-RTI.info Newsletter, January 2018

Fostering public participation in the science communication processes

Science communication, which we intend as any activity that involves one person transmitting science-related information to another, should be part of a scientist's everyday life as communicating with society about science and its benefits is nowadays more important than ever. Nowadays the trend is to foster public participation in the science communication processes, both to improve discussion and to share decisions.  Good science communication is of benefit to the individual and community researcher, their institutions, policy and decision makers, and the wider public. Moreover, outside the restricted circle of insiders, society is also interested in science. Citizens today are not so "illiterate" and poorly informed on the scientific level as we would tend to imagine even if differences still persist within different segments of the population, depending for instance on age and level of education.

Every scientist, researcher, scholar, teacher is potentially a promoter of scientific information. Scientists give talks, write papers and proposals, communicate with a variety of audiences, and educate others. Thus, to be successful scientists, they must learn how to communicate effectively. In other words, to be a successful scientist, you must be also an effective communicator and able to transmit your message clearly and concisely so that it is understood, while also engaging your audience

The main question is how to present and explain something that could be as complicated as quantum physics while pitching it at a level that is engaging for someone without any scientific training.  It is a challenge that professional science communicators face every day and everywhere in the world. These need to communicate the scientific outputs of their research institutions to journalists, policy makers and to the general public or, better said, “general publics”, each with their own level of experience, knowledge, morals and ethics. In such a context, the scientific communication could be also defined as a "mediation activity" (between the scientific and public world) or "vulgarization", to make accessible languages ​​and contents, otherwise incomprehensible.

The European Union largely promotes science communication and provides some clear indication on how to inform on research results.  Building capacities and developing innovative ways of connecting science to society is a priority under Horizon 2020 programme that demonstrates this way the importance of public participation. It namely intends to also tighten the relationship between science and society through actions that aim to advance knowledge on science communication so as to eventually improve the quality and effectiveness of interactions between scientists, general media and the public. Another goal is to eventually also strengthen citizens' trust and commitment in matters concerning research and innovation.

This is reached through actions involving young people in particular and creating synergies between all the actors involved in the research and innovation process, from those who produce science, to those who use it. Researchers, citizens, politicians, third sector etc. they have to be therefore “accommodated at the same table”.

From an initial top-down communication, therefore, which was based on the belief that society was lacking in interest and information about science, orientation is now towards dialogue and even more towards participation. A communication model, the latter, which sees the citizen discussing with both scientists and institutions and introducing the concepts of citizen science (people can contribute to research in the data collection phase) and open science (protocols, information and publications are publicly accessible).

Projects funded under Horizon 2020 are contractually requested to engage in communicating science to audiences beyond just their peers, moreover they need to implement open access and consider how to manage data. Communication activities must already be part of the proposal while a communication plan should define clear objectives (adapted to various relevant target audiences) and set out a description and timing for each activity. The objective is the attraction of multiple audiences towards the funded research initiatives and outputs while addressing the public policy perspective of EU research and innovation funding, by considering aspects such as:

  • transnational cooperation in a European consortium (i.e. how collaboration led to achieve more than otherwise possible)
  • scientific excellence
  • contributing to competitiveness and to solving societal challenges (eg. impact on everyday lives, better use of results, etc.).

In parallel, guidelines for good communication are presented in the H2020 manual to facilitate the communication activity and maximize results. Good communication activity shall therefore:

  • start at the outset of the action and continues throughout its entire lifetime
  • is strategically planned and not just be ad-hoc efforts
  • identify and set clear communication (e.g. have final and intermediate communication aims been specified? What impact is intended? What reaction or change is expected from the target audience?)
  • is targeted and adapted to that go including the media and the public
  • chooses (e.g. How does the action's work relate to our everyday lives? Why does the target audience need to know about the action?)
  • uses the right medium and means (e.g. working at the right level - local, regional, national, EU-wide?; using the right ways to communicate - one-way exchange (website, press release, brochure, etc.) or two-way exchange (exhibition, school visit, internet debate, etc.); where relevant, include measures for public/societal engagement on issues related to the action)
  • is proportionate.

Understanding Current Practices of Science Communication in Serbia and Albania:

Recommendations for Enhancing Effectiveness

Improving Science Communication is a hot topic also in the Western Balkans where, generally speaking, the science community tends to be self-referential and inward looking. Communication is influenced by the current evaluation system that counts the number of publications, if not the only measure for career advancement.  Moreover, more modern and impacting research would require an interactive and interdisciplinary communication, requiring multiple inputs from different areas of expertise. In such a framework, the Centre for Southeast European Studies (CSEES) has recently implemented a project titled "Current Practices of Science Communication in Western Balkan Countries and their Impacts" supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation project PERFORM. The project focuses on three outcome areas: strengthened social science communities, systemic linkages with political reform processes, civil society organisations, private sector and media, and favorable framework conditions and financial mechanisms.  Focus of this initiative has been on the communication and collaboration within the scientific community in Albania and Serbia so as to conduct a study aiming to improve scientific communication in the two countries but also in the region.  

Conclusions and Recommendations from the Study

Science Communication in Southeastern Europe is a reflection of the larger challenges sciences and research are facing. There has been chronicle underinvestment in education and science in recent decades in the region. In addition, the social norms have given little weight to research and science. Numerous scandals over plagiarism and diploma mills and the lack of any serious consequents in the region highlight the challenges faced.

This study examined in particular science communication in Albania and Serbia, highlighting considerable similarities between the two countries. In the three aspects of science communication explored here--communication within the community, communication with the policy environment and with the larger public--a number of patterns emerge.

First, science communication is not yet understood as an integral part of a scholars work. Both scholars themselves and institutions have often little understanding of what is entailed by science communication and/or remain sceptical towards it. This includes limited training for both journalists and scholars in science journalism, or policy communication and on how to ensure your research reaches the desired audience. The best-developed area is the promotion of science communication towards peers with greater emphasis on international publications. However, beyond some incentives in the case of Serbia, there is little support and infrastructure provided. Abuse is rife as the internationalization strategies only gradually distinguish between reputable and predatory publications.

Second, as social sciences are relatively small fields in both countries and the dominant languages only slightly expand the scope of audience, science communication remains not well integrated into larger social science networks. While individual researchers are part of such networks, or have left and joined the academic diaspora, these are few or no longer part of the domestic scientific landscape. Thus, internationalization is still in its infancy and with it the infrastructure of science communication.

Third, the larger social challenges feed into science communication as well. This affects policy making, characterized by high level of suspicion and lack of communication between policy makers and scholars. It also applies to the public sphere, which lacks a tradition of science communication – few media are committed to communicating about recent scholarship. In addition, there are few high-quality media that would be possible candidates. Instead, academic contributions to public debates are often limited to punditry or conventional nationalist narratives, commonly devoid of new, relevant research.

Fourth, there is an overproduction of local books and journals in both countries, particularly in Serbia. These high numbers of outlets are often subject to limited quality controls, reflect the highly fragmented and personalized academic networks. The results are many low-impact and low-research publications that are either of low quality or bury the more important research. The publications have often low print runs are either not available electronically or only in an intransparent manner, reducing their relevance.

Fifth, social media, blogging and open access publications, as just a few examples of contemporary forms of science communication remain uncommon in a social science environment that is overall conservative and with hierarchical patterns often discourages innovation and change.

Science communication is not just an afterthought to research: Without it, research is often ignored and remains marginal. In particular for social science to remain relevant, it needs to be understood by its peers, the policy community and the larger public. Effective science communication need not be an exclusive domain of well-equipped and funded institutions or research. Science communication can compensate for some other deficiencies. For example, social media can be a low-cost strategy for disseminating research findings when other costlier strategies are not available. Science communication can also increase global visibility, undermine non-meritocratic structures and ensure the social and policy relevance of social science research. Thus, the recommendations are aimed at providing concrete proposals for overcoming the aforementioned challenges and empower social science research in Serbia and Albania.

Key recommendations: Science to Policy

  • Develop joint strategic partnership between scientific/research institutions and think tanks/NGOs with relevant experience in policy advocacy.
  • Revise or define the criteria for state-funding of research to include and valorise: the contribution of projects to the policy process and-or communication to the public; to include and evaluate the categories for impact-assessment, dissemination and promotion of research results, along with requirement of periodical and final evaluation of these projects.
  • Raise awareness among ministries, public administration and other institutions on the importance of analytics and research for evidence-based decision-making.
  • Establish, update and make public the transparent and open registry of all researchers working both at universities and research institutes that will include names, affiliations and scientific results of all scientists.
  • In line with Open Government and Open Data, the government and relevant ministries should create an online repository of policy-relevant data produced by HEIs, think tanks, NGOs, international organizations and public institutions.

Key recommendations for science and higher education institutions

  • Create guidelines and practices on how to communicate science to be easy accessible by researchers;
  • Invest in capacity development, particularly junior researchers and PhDs, on science communication;
  • Set up specialised units to perform science communication:
    • To train/facilitate researchers communicating research findings;
    • To liaise with mainstream media;
    • To develop capacities on using online social media;
  • Internationalise academic journals and improve peer review process.

Key recommendations for researchers   

  • Increase cooperation with researchers within the country and within the region;
  • Use alternative science communication channels: blogging, online social network, digital storytelling, info graphics;
  • Establish new communication lines with journalists – joint activities;
  • Focus on applicable research, relevance of research for the national and regional priorities.

Please read the full report here: Understanding Current Practices of Science Communication in Serbia and Albania


A selection of topic related events, news, calls, documents, organisations, links etc. is available here.

 

Document type
  • Other
  • Presentation
Language

English

Publication Year

2018

Country
Austria
Geographical focus
  • WBC
Scientifc field / Thematic focus
  • General

Entry created by Admin WBC-RTI.info on March 12, 2018
Modified on March 12, 2018