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Science communication: the view from researchers, policy makers and journalists

The popular ‘Standing up for Science’ workshops (run by Sense about Science, supported by Taylor & Francis) are all about training the next generation of scientists in communication, to equip them to make a case for the use of research-based evidence in society. In this post, Susannah Streubel, intern at Sense about Science shares top take-aways from a recent workshop in Brussels. What was the view on science communication from researchers, policy makers, and journalists?

Researchers

First up a panel of researchers shared their experiences of science communication and public engagement. Some integrated outreach activities alongside their day-to-day research life; others had left the academic world to pursue careers that support evidence-based policy making. Both groups felt frustrated by the lack of time allocated for public engagement activities at academic institutions.

What were the take-home messages?

  • Researchers should actively make time for public engagement outreach, as this can be for the benefit of the wider general public.
  • There are lots of different ways to approach public engagement – some are more involved than others. A couple of examples are speaking up at science communication festivals, looking for opportunities to scientifically advise local NGO’s, or even sharing your work online via twitter or blogs.
  • You’ll need to leave the lab and use a different language than the one spoken between you and your lab mates.

Policy makers

The second session consisted of a policy maker panel with speakers who assist MEPs or work at the interface between policy drafting and scientific expert advice. These are the players whose job it is to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers. Their main take-home messages were:

  • Policy makers rely on the knowledge of experts.
  • Politicians are not always good at reading scientific papers (obviously, because that’s not their job!)
  • Scientists must make an effort to translate findings into a message that is relevant to society, so that politicians can directly integrate research into their policy making processes.

Hearing of the importance of research in policy making was encouraging for young scientists who might sometimes question the purpose of their work – myself included. Evidence matters indeed. And anyone has a right to understand the evidence behind any policy decision. Finding this evidence might take some chasing up of representatives of the European Parliament, but it will pay off eventually.

Journalists

The role of journalists is to report on science policy or science itself. All panelists agreed that misleading headlines are a problem that can be hard to solve. Communicating research to non-experts can also be challenging for scientists themselves. The top tips from this session were:

  • If researchers want those outside academia to understand their findings, then it’s their responsibility to distil those messages into a couple of sentences.
  • The more input that comes from the scientist, the more clearly and truthfully a story can be told by the media.
  • Both scientists and journalists work to strict deadlines. So to meet these faster, two concepts of science communication can be useful: coming up with a unique selling proposition and using an elevator pitch (editor’s note: get inspiration for pitching your research with the 3-minute thesis competition).

A key message…

A key message for researchers overall was that you need to zoom out from your narrow subject focus. Put your expertise in a wider societal context. It turns out that everyone’s knowledge is not so minor after all but can contribute to various publicly relevant debates. Even policy discussions held in the European Commission could benefit from everyone’s expert knowledge.

Creating a well thought-through plan is a better guarantee for success in science communication. Check out a guide from Sense about Science on effective public engagement in five steps for advice on how to do this.

Want more tips on science communication? Then check out our other resources: 

10 tips for working with journalists

Getting research into UK Parliament 

Podcast: 15 minutes to develop your research career – public engagement in research