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Science Communication and the role of media: A short summary of an interesting discussion

Aktualisiert: 11. Juli 2023

Last month I was invited by Arbeitskreis WuV to discuss about "The role of media in science communication" together with Julia Ecker, who works in Public Relations at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich and as freelance journalist.

We had a great evening with very exciting discussions and an engaged audience.

I'd like to summarize some of the points from the discussion in this blog post.


Science communication is an important topic, but one that comes with many challenges. In this blog post, I would like to address the difficulties of science communication and why it is often perceived as a complex task. From a lack of training opportunities to a lack of time for scientists, there are many reasons why science communication faces challenges.


Lack of formal training and the Curse of Knowledge.


Some of my colleagues I have spoken with are unsure about science communication because they have never learned it formally. In our training, we scientists learn a lot about methods, how to write a scientific article or how to present our work to colleagues. But in very few cases does the training include learning how to communicate one's research in a way that is understandable to lay people. This can lead to insecurity and make communication difficult. Fortunately, there are now some great seminars and courses on science communication, but they are not usually part of the regular training.



Short commercial break: One point that I am very happy about, however: At UMIT TIROL, the university where I work, doctoral students can take a one-day basic course in science communication as part of their studies since 2022 - which I teach! 😉



In addition to this, there is the "Curse of Knowledge", where experts have internalized their expertise to such an extent that they find it difficult to explain it in a way that is understandable to lay people. This is because they often can no longer see the forest for the trees and are not aware that something that is logical and self-evident for them is not for outsiders.


Science communication and the image problem

Although the importance of science communication has been recognized in recent years, it is still sometimes viewed with skepticism. Some scientists still turn up their noses at the popularization of science. I have the feeling that these reservations about science communication are becoming less frequent, especially among the younger generation of scientists, but overall, they are still present in many places.




Lack of time and the luxury of prioritizing SciComm

Another obstacle to effective science communication is the scientists' lack of time. Although many universities emphasize the importance of "third mission," i.e., the transfer of research to society, it is often not sufficiently appreciated in practice. Applications and promotions are often based on other criteria (namely research, i.e. publications, and - preferably well evaluated - teaching) which means that scientists, understandably, often do not (or cannot) give science communication the priority they would like to.




Nevertheless, the link between scientific research and the reality of people's lives plays a crucial role.


Science and the media - two worlds collide

Science communication is subject to constant change in the media landscape. While universities carry out campaigns, events and social media channels, they often only reach people who are already interested in science. To reach other groups support from traditional media such as TV, radio and daily newspapers is needed.

In the world of science, everything revolves around objectivity and accuracy. Scientists strive to provide objective information. But when it comes to science communication and working with media, other components play a crucial role: emotions, stories and connecting with the reality of the audience's lives and being able to give short, concise answers within a few hours.


The question of expertise and professional competence is of great importance in science communication. Scientists should ideally only comment on topics that belong to their area of expertise and about which they have in-depth knowledge. This ensures high-quality and reliable information transfer. However, it is often the case that journalists also inquire about topics that lie outside the scientists' immediate area of expertise. This can be due to various reasons, such as the search for a broader perspective or the need for an understandable explanation of complex topics. In such cases, the challenge is to maintain the fine line between scientific expertise and personal opinion. Scientists should clearly label their statements as their own opinion when they comment on topics that do not directly belong to their area of expertise. It is important to recognize the limits of one's own knowledge and to communicate transparently.


At the same time, journalists must bear the responsibility of correctly interpreting and communicating the statements of scientists. It is their job to ensure that the information they receive from scientists is presented appropriately and accurately. Journalists have a responsibility to understand the complexity of scientific topics and explain them in a way that is understandable to a broad audience - a challenging task indeed!


Conclusion:

At a time when complex issues and technologies are becoming increasingly important, strong collaboration between media and science is critical.

Close collaboration between the media and academia can help ensure that the decisions we make as a society are based on sound evidence and prepare us for a better future. It is time to recognize the power of emotions in science communication and use them in a targeted way to convey the importance and relevance of scientific findings to the reality of people's lives. Because ultimately, it's the stories and emotions that drive people to engage with scientific issues and commit to a sustainable future.





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