Openness and responsibility towards society
- Christina Pfänder
Transparent and dialogue-oriented science communication makes research more apparent to the general population and can establish a basis for wise decisions in politics and society. Dr Alexandra Borissova Saleh committed herself to expanding science communication in Russia, her home country: via an NGO the Russian Association of Science and Communication (AKSON) and a newly conceived master´s degree course in St. Petersburg.
Dr Borissova Saleh, what is the significance of science communication in Russia?
Our work over the past years has enabled many Russian higher education institutions and researchers to develop a modern understanding of science communication. The topic was scarcely relevant in Russia prior to that; the term science communication didn’t even basically exist. Researchers did certainly publish their findings in scientific journals, but this meant that they only reached a specialist audience, not the general public. Yet it’s the very communication with society that’s important – most higher education institutions are after all funded via tax revenues. My view is that academia has to be transparent and also address unresolved issues.
You support the development and expansion of science communication in Russia. What initiatives have you introduced to promote dialogue between academia and society?
Together with colleagues, I’ve used various activities to promote Russian science communication: at the Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO) University in Saint Petersburg, we succeeded in establishing Russia’s first master´s degree course in Science Communication, thereby creating an important foundation for the future. Over 100 students have by now successfully completed this study programme, and are making their expertise available to higher education institutions and society in general. Until just a few months ago, I was still able to teach at the institute in Saint Petersburg and mentor students there. I’ve also been involved as a founding member and former president of the NGO called AKSON, the Russian Association for Science Communication. Albeit the war of aggression against Ukraine and its associated tightening of Russian policy sadly meant that we had to suspend our activities at AKSON.
What added value did AKSON offer its members?
AKSON engendered mutual exchange among the likes of researchers, academic journalists, bloggers, organisers of academic events and curators, and it assisted them in developing professional communication strategies. This included us organising an annual conference, and arranging a series of workshops. We were able to establish a collaborative community of several hundred people over recent years – a major success! Our activities also included three scholarship calls and two national competitions in which we recognised particularly innovative ideas relating to science communication and science journalism. This enabled us to raise the visibility of Russian science journalism at the European level, since our winner of the 2020 competition was subsequently designated as European Science Journalist of the Year. The idea behind our recognition wasn’t an evaluation, but rather learning from each other by identifying best practices using a collaborative approach similar to peer review. We also initiated a Citizen Science Platform that offered citizens the opportunity to take part in different research projects: in 2021, the “People of Science” project was shortlisted for a prestigious award from . And we achieved all of that with very limited support from the state.
To what extent did your stay in Germany inspire you to set up AKSON?
Science communication didn’t even exist as an academic field in Russia at that time, so everything was very challenging – and my experiences in Germany were central. My stay at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve gave me valuable insight into science communication as a subject, and into the structure of an organisation. I had the opportunity to converse with numerous international experts who subsequently assisted with establishment of the master´s degree course at ITMO Saint Petersburg. I still keep in touch with many of them today. My time in Germany forms so to speak the cornerstone which initially enabled my commitment to science communication in Russia.
What impact did your activities exert on the research policy landscape and society in Russia?
Multiple academic studies show that AKSON enabled us to open up Russian science to the people, arouse interest in science communication and thus also to change society as a whole in the long term – at least I hope so. Researchers accordingly started to collaborate with newly established communication bureaus in utilising the mass media – including on an international basis. In some ways this was a paradigm shift to openness and responsibility towards society. In parallel, we’ve given a voice to science journalists whose role differs from that of science communicators, and we assisted them in their understanding: their rights and their duties are to remain independent and critical. I really regret that we’re unable to continue this success story due to the political pressure we faced. At the same time, I can see what’s been achieved so far – and our members can still stay in touch with each other, even outside AKSON. I also hope that the story of AKSON will be seen as an inspiration rather than a failure: if we in Russia were capable of establishing an organisation like AKSON, then people in democratic countries will find it much easier to manage.