By Grant Jacobs 30/08/2015 6


The Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand has published a special issue, The future of science in New Zealand.[1] It’s open for all to read for this month (August 2015) – grab your copies soon! [Update: a limited number of copies are available from the authors’ blog.]

There’s a lot to read,[2] but let’s look what we do here at sciblogs, science communication.

Rhian Salmon and Rebecca Priestley wrote an article, A future for public engagement with science in New Zealand. Their article covers several topics; I want to mainly focus on their remarks about science communication and awards in New Zealand[3] by offering a few thoughts on some of the passages they have written to encourage wider discussion. Do chip in, in the comments below!

Our personal experiences make for anecdotes, rather than evidence, and reflect the happenstance of our particular lives. Most of my comments will fall that way, but I hope it can still serve to invite discussion. They’re not meant to be definitive, or even tightly-held, but something to get the ball rolling.

In addition, there is only one full-time science journalist in the country: most journalists who cover science are not trained in science or science journalism and are expected to cover other issues as well. This is probably a reflection of both the size and economic landscape of the New Zealand media in general and is not, as the following section elucidates, a reflection of a lack of public interest in science. Perhaps in response to these limitations, scientists in New Zealand play a significant role in science communication. However, these scientists tend to have no clear lines of accountability for this work, or specific training in science communication, as described in more detail below.

New Zealand science communication content

A number of years ago I asked a newspaper editor about writing for their publication, hoping that I might be able to offer some contributions as a small starting point towards longer-form writing.

Broadly speaking, I was told they would only consider pieces with a very strong New Zealand focus, that pieces about recent developments internationally were considered not of interest, in large part because they could readily fill this need from syndicated feeds from the major newspapers, feeds that they had already paid for using an annual fee. (Perhaps the equivalent occurs within the TV media environment, too?)

Presenting an exclusively NZ focus, while loyal and helpfully highlighting New Zealand scientist’s work, is not particularly representative of how science works in reality, and potentially falls for the more advertorial line institutional press offices understandably favour.

© Grant Jacobs, The Center Eksperimentov, Maribor, Slovenia.
© Grant Jacobs, The Center Eksperimentov, Maribor, Slovenia.

Science is incredibly international, in a way that I’m not entirely sure the general public fully appreciate. (I’m not sure general-beat journalists do either.)

Most researchers, at least that in areas I am familiar with, have collaborations with overseas groups, or at least are in close communication with fellow scientists in the same area internationally. Research simply doesn’t take place in a local bubble. Even if large chunks of the hands-on work is necessarily local, the involvement and influence of international research is considerable.

Coverage featuring local workers can be tempted to focus nearly exclusively on them. It’s touchingly loyal to New Zealand in it’s own way, but also a way I find faintly patronising at times. New Zealand scientists do deserve better visibility, but presenting the wider context of their work should not detract from this, if anything aid it.

It’s not helped by that university press releases can omit or play down overseas aspects – part of their aim is to promote the university; they want to have the spotlight on their institution.

I’m not against the work that strongly focuses on New Zealand-only (or mainly) work, such as local conservation work, research on New Zealand public health issues, and so on. They’re wanted. But I feel that there should also be a place for original New Zealand-based efforts to write (longer) pieces about major developments in science in general. (Another difficulty for this work is access to embargoes.[4])

Accountability, advocacy, and more

The authors note that scientists communicating to the public “tend to have no clear lines of accountability for this work, or specific training in science communication, as described in more detail below.”

I confess I’m not sure of what is meant by “lines of accountability” in this context. If they mean who holds these people to account, in the case of academic researchers I’m not sure if anyone really does – in principle at least they’re free to speak for themselves. Those within Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are likely accountable to their managers; similarly for those in business.

If what is meant is who they speak for, public scientists, supposedly, are meant to hold a “critic and conscience of society” role as part of their job. (This is enshrined in the Universities Act, 1989, especially Section 161(2)a.)

Sandra Grey, for example, has said,

The critic and conscience function granted institutions in the Education Act 1989 – institutions being the staff and students – provides scope for scholars to engage in advocacy, activism, and functions often labeled public intellectualism.

(I’m wary of adding “advocacy and activism”, as these look to be interpretations of that Act; the Act itself makes no explicit mention of these – the wording of Section 161(2)a is “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”.)

I operate as a solo consultant, outside of the scope of the Education Act, so in principle I’m open to do ‘whatever’, within the scope of general law. In practice I take a strong ‘for the wider public’ position. Part of this is that my particular type of work (computational biology) doesn’t tie me particularly tightly to any one ‘side’ in issues. Another part is simply how I prefer to be: I try hard to think about issues from all sides as much as is reasonably possible (given time, etc), much preferring my role be to determine all the positions and present to the public the range of positions, along with the issues that accompany each, rather than ‘advocating’ just one. (Bear in mind here that at times there will only be one position that can reasonably be taken.)

In the New Zealand setting, at least, I have a suspicion that none of the editors or producers in the country have specialist science backgrounds (outside of NHNZ and associates, who have an exemplary success record), meaning that they’re unlikely to be able to hold their journalists to a standard for the science itself. I’ll freely admit a bias here, as I find the editorial side interesting and something I don’t see discussed nearly as much as the roles of journalists or science communicators – and that, after all, editors are where the buck stops. (Note this is before the likes of Press Complaints boards; accountability within the business.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that those who write at Sciblogs are held to the terms and conditions set by the Science Media Centre (who field any complaints).

Training and scientists in science communication

However, these scientists tend to have no … specific training in science communication,

Fair point. Also fait, I think, to suggest few researchers will have the time to commit to more than very brief training,5 as they are too busy juggling other commitments (meetings, supervising students, etc.) I tried to address in writing about an imaginary near-future role of scientist-communicators.

most journalists who cover science are not trained in science

Also worth considering is the difference between undergraduate student backgrounds and research science backgrounds.

There is a substantial difference in understanding of how science goes about it’s business between undergraduate students and, say, those at a post-doctoral level and higher (who we would call scientists). Media accounts are about research science, something students have yet to experience. Much better than they understand some science than none, but there is quite a difference between the two.

(I recall reading a pitch for the NZ SMC’s Science Journalism Fellowship and thinking that the pitch was calling to scientists when the fellowship, to my reading, was calling for undergraduate students.)

Public engagement by scientists

This high level of public engagement occurs despite the fact that most public funding sources do not explicitly demand or reward public engagement activities. Thus, there is still little professional incentive or reward for individual ‘everyday scientists’ to engage or train in communication and public engagement activities and approaches. (That said, many science institutions now have a commercial imperative and are increasingly seeing the value of communicating their science to raise awareness of their successes and help justify ongoing funding.)

I read this as in two parts.

To the first, it is true there is little incentive for researchers to train or engage in public engagement. In many ways it can be considered to be straying from science – shades of the lofty ideal held high and any that deviate are considered to be falling from those heights. Overly dramatic, but you get my point.

(As as aside, as I explore issues in science and I sometimes wonder if science might, in some senses, be cycling back towards Victorian-era models, with the moves to open-access publication, direct-to-public communication, crowd-sourced funding, and so on.)

The second part,

many science institutions now have a commercial imperative and are increasingly seeing the value of communicating their science to raise awareness of their successes and help justify ongoing funding.

– perhaps some of this may not be just commercial, or may be moving past simple pitches for funding?

On rare occasion I see a ‘requirement’ (a wish, really) in job advertisements for science communicator roles in leading ‘pure research’ institutes for candidates with a PhD in the research area of the institute. My reading of this is that a few, of these top-end ‘pure research’ institutes may be recognising that over-pitched or oversold PR can create a poor image of their institute and would like to offer more substantive communication of their work.

A number of institutes are pitching on social media stories about what the institutes are doing that are longer form and less directed than what typical press release material. These are much less overtly advertorial, while still clearly having their focus on work done at their institute.

Science prizes in New Zealand

The three prizes all recognise and reward similar attributes and achievements and it has been the norm, rather than the exception, for one outstanding scientist to be awarded two, or even three, of these prestigious prizes. In rewarding only ‘superstar scientists’ we are missing the opportunity to celebrate and reward a range of different engagement practices, such as long-term and collaborative programmes, programmes that have been shown to succeed in meeting a specific engagement goal, or participatory programmes focused on co-production of knowledge.

I’ve made very similar remarks in on-line discussions and I’m sure others have come to similar conclusions independently. I suspect this might be a widely held view?

As well as this annual prize of NZ$100,000 given to a ‘practising scientist who is an effective communicator’ to allow them to ‘further develop their knowledge and capability in science media communication’ (The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes 2015), the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) gives an annual Science Communicator Award to a ‘practising scientist for excellence in communicating science to the general public’ (Science Communicators Award 2015) and the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) awards the prestigious Callaghan Medal to a person who has ‘made an outstanding contribution to science com- munication, in particular raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress’ (RSNZ 2015).

Personally, I wonder if it would be better if these awards were co-ordinated a little. Below are a few thoughts –

The Royal Society’s Callaghan Medal should recognise outstanding long term service. I feel it ought to include those working outside the ‘academy’. I can think of candidates in radio journalism or from museums, for example. Part of the widening of the scope should be recognition that most Ph.D. graduates do not end up doing research science. (See From science PhD to careers outside academia: what might help? and further articles linked at the end of that article.)

The NZAS Medal I feel is best directed at the ‘up and coming’, which might suit a smaller and younger science organisation. This may not be especially easy to define, but the thought is to find a way to complement the Callaghan Medal, rather than be much the same thing.

In my opinion the PM’s Science Media Communicator Award should dominantly be about the project to be done, with past work setting ‘genuine interest’ and ‘sound practice’ criteria for consideration. This is closer to the aims of the award the year it was introduced, when described itself quite directly this way, complements the Callaghan and NZAS awards, which acknowledge past success, and would reflect that funds are gifted to carry out future work based on a project put forward in the application. I would like to hear more about what was done with the awarded money – for all of the PM’s awards, not just the science communicator award.

Adding to these three is a new Science Communicators Association of New Zealand (SCANZ) award, that rewards a project done (not awarding one to be done). I note this asks for assessment of the success of the project. A small catch for some is that it’s not always easy to quantitate the success of some projects, so this may favour very focused projects with strongly targeted goals, rather than more open-ended, or wide-ranging, or on-going, science communication efforts.

Finally, I agree that it’s important to remember that not all useful work is done under ‘bright lights’ and that there are a wide range of different types of science communication endeavours.

The Science Media Centre

In 2008, New Zealand’s Science Media Centre was launched as part of a government strategy to ‘engage New Zealanders with science and techno- logy’ (Science Media Centre 2015). It now facilitates links between science and the media by providing timely information on topical science and technology stories; running a blog site, Sciblogs.co.nz, for scientists to engage with the public; and delivering training workshops for scientists in skills such as dealing with the media, blogging and podcasting. Unlike in many other countries, where science media centres attract industry funding, New Zealand’s Science Media Centre is fully funded by public money and is hosted by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

I’m including this mainly as I feel the SMC deserves more attention, but I’ll take the opportunity to note that whlie the SMC website banner blurb runs,

Our aim is to promote accurate, evidence-based reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community.

I like to think their aim isn’t ‘just’ to (paraphrasing) “help the media”, but to aid better passage of stories involving science to the public in NZ – with the role journalists, scientists, PIOs, etc., falling into that process as they do, as the Salmon and Priestley allude to.

Reasons for growth in scicomm in NZ

The recent growth in this field might therefore be driven, to some extent, by an incentive for increased recruitment to and marketing of science, rather than any response to a call for greater engagement with science by the public.

It’s a good point that the increase in science communication activity is almost certainly more driven by the science (and science business) communities, rather than the public itself, but having said that for at least the part of this that is being hosted with the media (TV, radio, newspapers) I doubt the media would take the material unless they felt the public would appreciate it. As businesses they will be mindful of their audiences’ wants.

I’d also add that for at least some of the scientists writing at Sciblogs their beginnings were as individuals wanting to give to the public a better–more correct–understanding of aspects of science or to counter frank pseudo-science, rather than either “recruitment to” or “marketing of” science as such. Since then, some of us have seen value in writing some material somewhat closer to what might be covered in the media, on stories we think might be of interest to readers. (I suspect in part we have SMC staff encouragement to “blame” for this!)

Put another way, I suspect many of the (earlier) Sciblogs contributors started with the second of the two possibilities that Rhian Salmon offered to the SMC as commentary about her and Rebecca Priestley’s contribution to the special issue in, Te putaiao mo apopo o Aotearoa — The future of science in New Zealand,

We’re encouraging scientists to question why, and how, they communicate science. Is it to tell the world how great they are and why we should all trust them and fund them, or is it to help New Zealanders (and New Zealand) to make informed decisions about science and technology?

A call for professionalism

The realisation of this vision requires a longterm commitment to the professionalisation of public engagement with science, across the science sector. We envisage a New Zealand in which undergraduate courses that critically examine the context and mechanisms through which science is communicated are a mandatory component of all science degrees. We would continue this upskilling of our science graduates by offering postgraduate courses for science students and delivering Masters programmes that develop job-relevant skills and expertise in topics such as science communication, advocacy, policy and decision-making, economics and management.

However, learnings around public engagement should not be limited to our students or future scientists; this commitment to critically informed science communication that responds to the needs of New Zealand’s publics needs to be infused and actively integrated throughout the science system. To do this, we need incentives and opportunities to be developed, supported and rewarded that ‘raise the bar’ for science communication efforts. Funding proposals need to do more than ask about hypothetical engagement plans, which, if implemented, ‘tick a box’ at the end of the project. Instead, the engagement component needs to be critically assessed and any associated budget for delivery and evaluation needs to be ring-fenced for these activities alone. Further, the new proposed cohort of talented Masters students could be used to help design, deliver and evaluate these activities. This would provide hands-on experience in public engagement, under the supervision of scholars and professional communicators, and ensure a cycle of feedback and peer-review for engagement activities.

As the authors note, they run science communication courses and are clearly passionate about that.

Perhaps academics would think that they are too busy for them to all do science communication? They might consider it reasonable to all be able to briefly speak on their own work.

(This is a line I’ve taken in the past, for example in writing a forward-looking piece imaging a near-future scene where some scientists within larger interests areas might be part-time scientist-communicators, covering things within that broad area of science.)

A vital thing, though, whatever is done, is for science communication to be accepted as a valid role, not a deviation from science work.

For longer science communication projects, assessment might be useful as they suggest; where it can naturally be done I think it’s a good idea. I can’t help thinking that in cases it might be a small project in itself, though. Then again if you view the effort as a project rather than a thing done before moving on to the next job this would be appropriate.

Bearing in mind that the majority of science students go on to work outside of universities or research science, and that we ought to offer them skills suitable to their futures, I can’t help thinking a wider use of these skills is in business pitches, and similar. With that in mind, would offering ‘presentation skills’ in a wider sense be of more value for undergraduate students? (For post-docs, staff and perhaps Ph.D. students the focus would be more on science communication.)

Normalising science communication

Finally, the current system of valorising exceptional individual scientist communicators needs to be readdressed. In place of a competitive, high-stakes, individualistic reward system, ‘everyday science communication’ needs to be expected and celebrated. We envisage a New Zealand in which science communication activities are a normal, valued part of every research group, department and institution. To encourage this, we propose: (1) opportunities for scientists, science communicators and social scientists to share best practice and build collaborations, for example, through interdisciplinary conferences; (2) an ongoing programme of professional development in science communication that allows scientists and science communicators to critically reflect on their own work and explore opportunities to publish their activities and experiences; and (3) establishment of a brokerage that connects ‘everyday scientists’ with science communication outlets, products, programmes and opportunities.

Essentially they look to want science communication to be an integral part of the (university) science sector rather than (just) the efforts of a few, to encourage science communication to be an accepted, if not expected, part of the routine of working in the academic science sector. (At least for some decent proportion of people; just as there will be exceptional people, there will be some who are disinclined or not especially good or whose time may be justifiably better spent focusing on their research.)

Having said that I think it’s worth remembering that while we should also acknowledge solid work less under ‘bright lights’, we shouldn’t begrudge the few exceptional people who put in considerably more effort.

Footnotes

I should apologise for the length of this. It’s what you get with someone writing on something of interest that they’ve thought over who is able to — at least on a good night! — type at reasonable speed.

1. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to have presented some thoughts about the present and future of computational biology for this issue.

2. Siouxsie has commented on Hickson’s Four Short Scenarios and about comments on Marsden funding* on Radio New Zealand (from twitter).

(* Sorry I don’t know which article covers this.)

SMC has drawn some commentary from the author of each piece in the special issue in, Te putaiao mo apopo o Aotearoa — The future of science in New Zealand

3. They also consider –

  • Science communication theory and the need for science communication to be informed by the studies that test the effectiveness of different approaches, tools, etc., and vice versa, for theory to be informed by practice.
  • The National Science Challenges and public engagement with science in NZ.

Worthy topics, but I don’t want to try address too many different things in one article.

4. A topic I’ve been meaning to write about for too long; I’ve touched on it in a Footnote in my previous piece, Epigenetics and the Holocaust. Unfortunately I cannot tackle this soon as I have too many other topics lined up to tackle in the next wee while.

5. Not all will do this under formal training. I spent a fair bit of time backgrounding science communication before I did any writing and have continued with this, in part because there were no part-time opportunities in the local Centre for Science Communication studies at that time (something that I understand will change).


Other articles in Code for life:

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

What should be taught in science communication courses?

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Consider this rare beast, the scientist-communicator

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Media reporting of subsequent findings


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