“There is increasing recognition of the broader social responsibility of scientists to engage with the wider public in meaningful ways” MBIE, 2014
Does this mean that scientists need to be better communicators? Definitely! The series of Science Media Savvy workshops hosted by the science Media Centre is proof of that. Incentives are also welcome: the Prime Minister’s $100,000 prize for NZs best science communicator is by global standards is extremely generous. It’s obvious that not everyone is cut out to be a good communicator but there are a list of techniques that can be learned and need to be practiced (preferably in front of honest colleagues).
Discussions during the recent Hamilton Media Savvy workshop inevitably touched on ‘what your academic colleagues think of you’. Some believe a communication role diminishes your role as a researcher. In some respects it can: the success of the Naked Scientists podcasts leaves little time for founder Dr. Chris Smith to do actual research. During a follow-up workshop on the art and mechanics of podcasting, Dr. Smith (clothed) noted “It’s easier to teach a scientists to be a journalist than it is to teach a journalist to be a scientist”. Science is definitely a field that needs lots of intermediaries (that includes scientists) to explain the intricacies, wonder and relevance to the general public, as journalists don’t always get it quite right.
Scientists now have a techno-smorgasbord of channels through which to communicate their research. However the pace of recognising and valuing scientists’ communication efforts has lagged behind in New Zealand – most of the passionate science communicators do it in their spare time and yes, their universities and institutions benefit hugely.
Reframing your research work into news-worthy content is no different to writing an abstract for a conference. Both rely on presenting information relevant to a given audience. The audiences may be separate or what Dr. Smith found for the Naked Scientist podcasts, a surprising mix: from early teens to octogenarians, scientists to non-scientists. I suspect most scientists and science students in the environmental sector rarely consider whom they want to enlighten or challenge beyond resource managers an government ministers. In my books, reciprocity is critical. Rhetoric has shifted from research ‘subjects’ to research ‘participants’, the latter implying far greater engagement. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (2014) has laid down a timely challenge, and I’ll do my best to take them up on it.
Now, about that funding I mentioned in the last blog…?
a good start would be for scientists, both real ones and social scientists, to publish in open access journals – then the public can actually read their work
I wholeheartedly agree – with a lot of public money going into research it makes moral sense to make that research available to the public without being locked up behind pay wall. There is thankfully an increasing range of options out there – from online only journals such as Conservation Evidence and Ecology and Society to others such as the NZ Journal of Ecology which also prints paper versions. One thing to note is the cost for publishing and article – it can get pretty steep if you don’t have funding. Ecology and Society for example runs to around $800 US per article which when you are drawing from a big research budget isn’t really an issue considering the cost of actually doing the research. Some subscriber only journals also offer this service is you are willing and able to pay extra for an open license. Alternately, scientists are also increasingly using other media altogether – sites like “The Conversation” for example, offer good overviews of research that enable readers to follow up with scientists in more detail. The great thing about NZ, is that scientists are generally very approachable and happy to answer your questions.