Imagine, if you will, a research institute or group with enough ‘critical mass’ of work around a particular area of science. Now imagine one 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.
They would communicate developments in the field the institute covers, not just what is happening within the institute. 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.
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.)
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, 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.
Communication 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.
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.
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