Consider this rare beast, the scientist-communicator

By Grant Jacobs 10/06/2015 8


Imagine, if you will, a research institute or group with enough ‘critical mass’ of work around a particular area of science.[1] Now imagine one[2] of the scientists within the institute being assigned a part-time role as a science communicator, with the remainder of their time doing research work within the institute. A 60:40 science and science-communication role, say.

What might this bring to the institute? What are the obstacles?

A related role is found in a few international research institutes who aim to hire science communicators with a doctorate in the field of the institute, presumably expecting this will help them tackle the science beyond a superficial understanding.[3]

hannah-sci-and-scicomm-2sHave a working scientist do this and you have a scientist-communicator: an inter-disciplinarian, blending the technical knowledge of the researcher with the skills of the communicator.

They would communicate developments in the field the institute covers, not just what is happening within the institute.[4] Aside from avoiding the ‘sell’ of press releases, the audience can relate the science of the institute to what else in happening in that field. It’d also help establish the institute as a port of call for information on that field.

Why might institutes have roles like these?

I can’t put evidence to these suggestions, but let me offer some possible reasons.

Audiences appreciate scientists that engage with them directly. Media can quote a researcher, or offer a sound-bite, but it’s not the same as the scientist writing or speaking straight to them. They won’t be a member of a media team, but one of the scientific staff.

In the NSC-CoRE meeting, Peter Griffin pointed to demise of investigative journalist in NZ & opportunities it presents for science communication. See also,  A lesson for science communicators in CampbellLive demise.
In the NSC-CoRE meeting, Peter Griffin pointed to demise of investigative journalist in NZ & opportunities it presents for science communication. See also, A lesson for science communicators in CampbellLive demise.

Few media companies today support specialists. Scientists in a communication role might take ownership of part of this issue. (This isn’t competing against (all) journalists head-to-head.[5])

You could argue that people best keep sharp by actively doing research, that if they only write about science they eventually lose the edge they helps them see the subtler issues that can bring interesting (and accurate) nuance to a presentation. (Remembering the setting here helps: this is for a focused institute communicating their science, not a broad-ranging institute who is, essentially, trying to promote themselves or ‘fly the brand flag’. Their communications will include some with more depth than most.)

They can assist their colleagues in their (perhaps one-off) science communication efforts. They’re not ‘the media people across the campus’, they’re fellow scientists that work alongside them, present seminars, attend the same meetings. They might explain or assist with social media use,[6] or run the institute blog network, pass on media presentation tips, direct people to resources.

They’re better able to relate the long back story research involves, which is absence in most accounts in the popular media.

These scientist-communicators might serve as the initial go-to person for media or other parties wanting information on topics related to what the institute tackles.

There are weaknesses to the idea of scientist-communicator roles, of course.

Vic-sci-and-scicomm-1sCommunication skills are a craft that takes time to develop, and needs practice. To my mind that much will come—there are plenty of examples of successful scientist-communicators at that level—but over and above this is an understanding of the media industry and networking with it.

Scientist-communicators could lean on the larger institution’s press office here. Their staff have this base, and the contacts. These complement one-another; by contrast press offices will lack the background for more the focused communication efforts being targeted.

It’s been widely commented that many scientists treat science communication as a distraction from ‘the true calling’. Shaun Hendy’s thoughts on the Going Public meeting writes on this,

Communicating with the public, whether through the media or otherwise, is often seen as a less than serious pursuit for scientists – something best left for the twilight of one’s career, or to be attempted in the lead up to that crucial funding round. Time on twitter is time away from the lab, a trade-off that no true scientist – god forbid, one early in their career – should be prepared to make. And when an articulate young scientist upstages us in the media, it can ruffle our greying feathers.

Similar concerns are expressed very widely, even by now well-known ‘popular science’ proponents like Oliver Sacks.

One way to help encourage science communication by scientists might be to point to the specialist science communicators found in the top-end research institutes. That top-end institutes hire specialist science communicators should be indicative of their value, you would hope. There’s still a ‘they’re not scientists’ element (or excuse) to tackle, however.

Interdisciplinary skills, such as these roles would involve, are often touted as valuable.

What if we could make this currently rare beast more common and accepted?

Feel free to share any further thoughts you have in the comments below.

Footnotes

1. For some undefined amount of ‘enough’… but I trust you get my meaning!

I wrote this piece with research institutes or groups that have enough ‘critical mass’ of work around a reasonably specific area of science in mind. For New Zealand these might include the CoREs (Centres of Research Excellence) and National Science Challenge groups who were at a meeting in Wellington discussing science outreach earlier this week. Another example might be something like Genetics Otago.

2. Science communication will not be for all researchers. Outside of talking about their own work, obliging researchers to yet another role isn’t likely to appeal to everyone. Hosting a scientist-communicator role might mitigate this.

3. I’m taking this from job advertisements I’ve seen; I have no idea what qualifications their applicants had.

4. For communicating newly-published science embargoes may present a challenge, as currently these are usually ‘journalist only’. This is a topic in it’s own right and a distraction from the main points of this article – hence being relegated to this footnote. I may tackle this in another article.

5. A point that seems to have been made at the World Conference for Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea.

6. For a survey of NZ academic institutions use of social media, there is the Science Media Centre’s inaugural Social Media Snapshot report. Fellow sciblogger, Ken Perrott’s has also offered a few thoughts on the survey and it’s results. Those interested in twitter might like to check out the eBook, Tweet this book, whose author spoke at the NSC-CoREs meeting in Wellington.


Other articles on Code for life:

Scientists can’t write?

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Media reporting of subsequent findings

Hyperbole from university press offices

Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

Communicating controversial science in context


8 Responses to “Consider this rare beast, the scientist-communicator”

  • Funny. I tweeted almost this same thing while watching the NHGRI meeting on genomic medicine just yesterday: https://twitter.com/mem_somerville/status/608314168077369344

    That was actually said on the floor as an idea. I don’t think it went anywhere, but it came up.

    I followed with this: https://twitter.com/mem_somerville/status/608314717870911488 I don’t know if you are familiar with the Agricultural Extension Services in the US, or if those exist elsewhere. But it’s like a bridge between research and uses.

    Yeah–it does exist elsewhere, but may have different names: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_extension

    Those paradigms are an excellent model for what we need on a bunch of technology fronts–but with the goal of reaching consumers and parents, not farmers as the end users.

    • Thanks Mary.

      Your mentioning agricultural extension (a new term to me!), makes me think NZ previously had scientist-communicators. Our Crown Research Institute (CRIs) were an intended target for this post (see the Footnotes). Prior to the CRIs being founded NZ had the DSIR, the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research. I’m outside my firt-hand knowledge here, but my understanding is that in the agricultural sector of the DSIR they had advisors whose job were to inform farmers of best practice and what they’d learnt from their research. (The had research farms, etc.) I believe most of this has been lost under the CRI model.* (The DSIR was broken down and recast into the present-day CRIs.)

      An aside for NZers: it’s been suggested that one of he potential loses under AgResearch’s idea of shifting to two main hubs may be a selling off of research farm land.

  • I asked about scientist-communicator roles on twitter and got a few responses. Here’s an edited version of the replies (ordered so readers might make better sense of it; twitter is a fairly fluid medium).

    Bart Janssen (@bjjanssen)
    said that “the (field) scientists talked with and advised the growers but that was just part of the job”

    Fleur Templeton (@templetonf) wrote
    “yes! I was one of them. We were few and far between, called Liaison or Publicity Officers @AlisonBallance was one too.

    “My first job was Industrial Liaison Officer at PEL, before #scicoimm had a name but that’s what we did!

    “Some DSIR divs far-sighted. Phys and Eng Lab employed me AND a journalist, Dianne Pettis“

    I asked what PEL meant; Fleur replied:
    “Physics and Engineering Laboratory, morphed to Industrial Research Ltd (IRL) now @callaghannz

    Alison Ballance (@AlisonBallance) wrote
    “I was called an Information Officer:) NIWA’s Dennis Gordon 1 too. BTW late Dianne Pettis went on to write novels”

    Fleur Templeton replied, “indeed.”Like Small Bones” my favourite. And think she wrote for Nat Hist and Otago Uni? #scicomm”

    Alison Ballance:
    “Yes indeed – she script edited my first ever natural history doco script”

    Fleur Templeton pointed out she had another position, too:
    “I was Info Officer at Geophysics Division, pre GNS Science, where @RKPriestley & I worked in #Scicomm too :)”

    Fleur Templeton:
    “I think most CRIs and Universities do have the equivalents now?”

    I’ve asked how her roles compared to what I was suggesting in my piece.

  • This is a great article! I think SciComm needs to be on a spectrum at the moment (and maybe in general), since not all scientists want to be communicators, and not all science communicators still want to be scientists! One end could be those still in the muck of research but passionate about communicating the science effectively (your article), and the other could be those that want to integrate with mainstream media on a regular basis (PR offices for example).

    Thanks!

  • You just described my dream job Bruce. Thanks for some very nice insights here.
    I agree with you that scientists employed as scientists who use time to communicate are still looked down upon within the scientific community. However, I believe things are improving and will continue to do so. Heidi Appel’s experiences (http://bit.ly/1QUXFxW) are a testimony to this. However, this is just one example and doesn’t reflect a day-to-day situation that you describe.
    Whether scientists like it or not, they will all need to take scientist communication more seriously in the future. Science is being pushed down a more interdisciplinary avenue by funding agencies. For such projects to be successful then scientists must consider how they communicate their science to other disciplines. If this communication is not successful, then these projects are just multi-disciplinary and not interdisciplinary.
    I believe that the communication needed in successful interdisciplinary projects draws on the same cords as successful communication to a general audience. Therefore, as we learn more about how to communicate between disciplines, we will also learn how to be better communicators to a general audience. At least that’s my personal hope. If we as scientists take interdisciplinarity seriously then our communication skills will also develop. Maybe all scientists will be scientist communicators in the future…. but now I looking FAR ahead in time! At the moment, it would be awesome if research institutes supported positions just like you have described.

  • It seems like a good idea but unfortunately in many institutions this is a thankless position where persons are left with unclear priorities (half scientist, half comm) within university hierarchies. Where do you belong? In the lab or writing press releases or developing an exhibit project? Lots of people in the structure just aren’t prepared to deal with this sort of person who moves easily between the bench and comm. jobs, especially one who has her own set of publications and scientific expertise as well as being a capable designer and teacher. On what basis are you promoted?

    I had a position doing something similar at a Parisian university for several years, but ended up with a difficult boss who insisted I work only for him as a kind of English-speaking super- secretary. He consistently refused that my skills should be accessible for all the scientists at the institute, putting me in an impossible situation. After having mounted not only a science center, but also teaching some of the first scientific communication courses at the university and revising more than fifty research manuscripts, I finally left after seeing my contributions continually de-valued and worse outright denied by higher-ups.

    So we can talk a lot about how desirable it is to be interdisciplinary, etc., but if the institution is not ready it is professional suicide for the persons capable of fulfilling these roles.