Recognise scientists who engage with the public

Students experiment in a laboratory. They will also need to learn how to communicate their findings to the public

Students experiment in a laboratory. They will also need to learn how to communicate their findings to the public

Scientists have to get out there and engage with society. Since public money funds most research, and the public don’t always understand the point of this expenditure, scientists need to explain the relevance of their work in solving real-world problems and improving people’s lives.

Visible and vibrant dialogue between science and society offers a great many benefits. It helps to bridge the widening trust and knowledge gap between scientists and “ordinary” people. It empowers people to make better decisions about science issues that affect them. It allows scientists to shape new policies and highlight the consequences of policy action — or inaction. It creates opportunities for people to voice their concerns about the social, moral, ethical, political and economic implications of science.

Healthy debate about issues grounded in science also helps people to understand how science works: how it advances knowledge in tiny, incremental steps, and how it tests and challenges existing knowledge (which is why scientists don’t always agree). Once people understand the nature of science and scientific evidence, they will be able to avoid being misled by the pseudoscience and confidence tricksters.

Scientists, too, stand to benefit from becoming more active in public life. Not only will a higher public profile attract the interest of funders, potential collaborators and future students, but it will also allow scientists to become leaders, influencers and agents of change in their fields of expertise. 

As in the rest of the world, calls are mounting in South Africa — from research funders, policymakers and society itself — for scientists to accept responsibility for public engagement as an integral part of their profession. 

Earlier this year, South Africa’s department of science and technology announced an ambitious public science engagement strategy designed to popularise science, enhance science literacy, and develop a critical public that participates actively in discourses around science.

Not all scientists are well prepared for these new public and policy demands.

Some scientists are natural communicators, and even become celebrities. They thrive on public engagement and enjoy the challenges of talking about science, with all the inherent risks and rewards. One of these is American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, presenter of the Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey television series. Locally, names like Lee Berger and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (in palaeontology), Himla Soodyal (in genetics) and Tim Noakes (diet and fitness) come to mind.

At the other end of the spectrum are scientists — possibly the minority — who shy away from public engagement at all costs. Their excuses include: “not my job”, “don’t have the time”, or “not worth the effort”.

In 25 years of working with research scientists, I have found that the vast majority of scientists fall somewhere between these two extremes. They are ambivalent or at least uncertain about their role in public engagement. They agree that they should reach out to audiences outside academia, but are unsure how to go about it. 

For them, communicating with the public is not an integral part of their job, and will more than likely be overshadowed by the urgency of getting the next academic article ready for publication. While they would like policymakers and potential funders to take note of their new findings, they are often reluctant to contact a journalist, fearing that the interview could go wrong and damage their reputation. They have seen some of the novel ways science is shared online, but they have never worked with playwrights, designers, photographers or data visualisation experts before, and never planned (or budgeted) for this kind of activity.

However, I believe that, with a little bit of expert help — and some support and training — most scientists can become active in public life. 

Very few scientists will take the first step when it comes to engaging with audiences outside academic circles; most of them need some encouragement to do so. It is the role of science communicators in research organisations and universities (including media officers, communication managers and research directors) to motivate and equip researchers for engagement work. 

They are the matchmakers and facilitators who connect scientists with communication opportunities like science cafés, science festivals and science centres. It is also their job to build and nurture relationships between scientists and journalists. They link scientists with illustrators, designers, photographers, videographers and editors who can help them develop novel communication products such as info-graphics, data visualisations and video clips suitable for media platforms.

Scientists will shy away from public communication as long as they lack confidence in their own engagement abilities. That is why research organisations and universities need to invest in providing scientists with communication skills. 

Planning and evaluation skills will help scientists to think tactically about why and with whom they communicate. At a practical level, they need to know how to write and speak about their work clearly, concisely and compellingly, as well as how to add impact to their writing and presentations with excellent visuals. 

Cutting-edge social media skills are essential for scientists to add impact and reach to their work. These skills should be provided to mid-career and senior scientists, although ideally they should become part of the training of postgraduate students and researchers right from the start of their careers.

We should encourage scientists to use public platforms, especially popular online ones, where they are much more likely to draw the attention of policymakers, business leaders and journalists. 

When universities and other research organisations assess scientists’ performance, not only their academic output, but also their contributions to policy formulation and public debate should be considered. Such organisations will have to come up with incentives for public engagement and recognise it as a form of scholarship. 

In addition to financial support, universities should also consider making awards to acknowledge the achievements of scientists who make their research accessible to the public. Through rewards and recognition, public engagement will, over time, become part of the institutional culture at research organisations.

The involvement of research-active scientists is a critical ingredient in initiating and sustaining a successful public science engagement campaign. The time has come for policymakers, science funders and research managers to recognise this, and to re-think the way they reward scientists for visible and active participation in public life. With the appropriate support mechanisms and the right incentives in place, scientists will one day see a call from a journalist as an opportunity, rather than an interruption.

Marina Joubert is a researcher at Stellenbosch University doing a PhD in science communication, which focuses on the factors that motivate South African scientists to engage with the public. Email her at [email protected]