Modern Science Communication: The Dialogue Between Sciecne and Society

  • 2022-02-18
  • Christina Pfänder
  • Comment
Online seminars, topic pages, cooperation events: read on to see how the DAAD and the Alumniportal Deutschland are promoting science communication.
© Getty Images/jacoblund

Climate change, pandemic, security policy issues, digitisation: humanity is having to tackle complex tasks that cannot be mastered without academic findings. Science is simultaneously reliant on the trust and understanding of policymakers and society – which makes discussion among the stakeholders imperative. In association with the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, the DAAD is committed to furthering science communication and to this end it used the Alumniportal Deutschland to organise a series of online seminars for DAAD-funded early career researchers at the end of 2021.

Which technologies promise a way out of the climate crisis? To what extent can artificial intelligence alter our everyday lives and our work environment? And how can we succeed in protecting ourselves against diseases like COVID-19? Fact-based and science-based information from research is increasingly important to the enablement of groundbreaking decisions in politics and society – therefore so too is the dialogue between science and the public. ‘This requires science to get closer to the populace’, says Henning Rickelt, Director of the Zentrum für Wissenschaftsmanagement e.V. (ZWM - Centre for Research and Science Management), which organised the online professional development seminar on the topic of science communication. ‘The art lies in being able to communicate complex issues to lay people, and enter into discourse with them.’ Modern science communication needs to be dialogue-oriented, participatory, and transparent – which represents a paradigm shift. ‘Until now there have been very few traditions or established processes in this field’, he says. ‘New framework conditions and resources are currently being created, such as initiatives designed to bring science and public together, or qualification options for researchers.’

An increase in  is also something that the DAAD is working on: it is involved in the #FactoryWisskomm initiative organised by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and has collaborated with the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany to develop a 10-point plan for science communication. Its online professional development is targeted at DAAD-funded graduates and postdocs. Based on their own research results, among other things, the participants learned which aspects are relevant for the public, and the best methods to use when presenting their work.

Participants in this interview

Successful communication ensures greater relevance

Participants like DAAD alumna Dr Friederike Adams, who is working in a cooperation project involving the University of Stuttgart and the University of Tübingen and heads the research group dealing with precision polymers for pharmaceutical applications. ‘I found the workshop to be really helpful, especially when it comes to writing and editing texts like press releases’, declares Adams. The tips she received in the seminar were easy to implement and have become an integral part of her work. ‘Everyone is interested in medical or pharmaceutical milestones that have a practical relevance’, she explains. ‘Successful communication ensures greater relevance for your own research data and prevents it being misunderstood.’

Adapting your linguistic formulation to suit the audience: ‘Researchers often find it difficult to restrict themselves, to work with examples, and to depart from high levels of abstraction’, says Dr Katja Flieger, who designed the seminar series together with her colleagues from ‘Media Training for Researchers’. Yet it’s sometimes necessary to compress the content, for instance in the case of interviews, press releases, or even presentations.’

A change in perspective: always give the conclusion first

Even the typical structure of an academic paper is felt not to be suitable for public discourse. ‘We always advise starting with the conclusion, in other words the essence of your work’, says Monika Wimmer from Media Training for Researchers. ‘Our feedback and the feedback provided by the group give participants a feeling for what interests people have who are not directly involved in their own field of research. This change in perspective is extremely valuable.’

Clear structuring of texts and sentences, highlighting the core message of your statement, and using simple language – these are key principles that Dr Vincent Lugert took away from the DAAD seminars and is now integrating as important communication strategies in his everyday work. Lugert is a research associate preparing a national animal welfare monitoring programme in the aquaculture sector, and his work involves dealing with a wide variety of interest groups.

‘Animal welfare is a topic with socio-political significance, which at the same time results in a high degree of polarisation’, he explains. An unambiguous, clear presentation of the research results is therefore all the more important for a researcher in his field of expertise. ‘The modular design meant that the training team was able to impart the content in a structured and coherent manner’, Lugert states. ‘The numerous practical exercises and the many suggestions we received were also very effective.’ 

The practical expertise included working on a convincing presentation style, as well as camera training. ‘Many of them were initially shy about seeing and hearing themselves’, says Monika Wimmer. ‘But feedback from the group helped the participants to overcome their apprehension, and realise that they are much clearer and better than initially suspected.’ The researchers also practised the use of social media channels, and discussed their opportunities, limitations and possible applications.

Trainers and organizers in this interview

‘We shouldn’t neglect the ethos of science’

‘Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn mainly involve gaining attention, rather than providing an evidence-based presentation of our research results. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t neglect the ethos of science’, says Dr Patrick Honecker, Chief Communication Officer at TU Darmstadt. This communication expert supports the training team and adds a higher education management perspective to the seminar. He attended a ‘media dinner talk’ at which he answered questions posed by the participants who, among other things, addressed the risks of social media platforms. ‘The corona pandemic has shown what it means when part of the population doesn’t understand how science functions’, says Honecker. Researchers who are exposed to polemics should ask themselves what discussions they want to have and seek support from their institution. Contrary to classic public relations, however, it doesn’t involve promoting the interests of your own institution to specific target groups. ‘Science communication, as we now understand it, is instead committed to the topos of science. It should therefore also refer to errors in the system and to open questions.’

Storytelling in science

Clarifying how science functions – this is also a goal for seminar participant Sarah von Hagen, who is undertaking her doctorate in Medieval and Modern History at the University of Göttingen on the topic of military might at sea in the 18th century. ‘I want for instance to show how sources are checked and interpreted, or reveal the significance that historical research has for our society’, she says. Although immediate advice or solutions to future warlike conflicts may not be derived from the study of naval battles – it does however enable a critical examination of European history. ‘I see my research as part of an anti-war story that delegitimises violence: for me, in essence it’s about public discussion regarding views of history, critically questioning them and breaking down the myths of national history.’ The DAAD professional development seminar provided her with various strategies to do just that. ‘I found the most impressive method to be storytelling, in other words making research results and procedures accessible in the form of a story’, explains von Hagen. 

The DAAD is launching a second series of professional development seminars in April. Current and former DAAD beneficiaries who are doctoral candidates or have already been awarded their doctorate are welcome to apply. Here too, participants can expect to learn the basics of successful science communication via basic and advanced modules: with ‘golden rules’ for presenting, writing, appearing in front of the camera, and the use of . ‘We’re already looking forward to the next round’, exclaims Flieger. ‘Communication is so important, just as important as heading a laboratory or mastering individual experiments.’

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