The evolving practice of science communication

Science communication is on the rise – and that’s good for democracy

Peter Weingart, Stellenbosch University; Lars Guenther, Stellenbosch University, and Marina Joubert, Stellenbosch University

Until a few years ago the term “science communication” would have been misunderstood by most people – including scientists – to mean any communication between scientists.

Now countries, universities and research institutions all over the world spend big chunks of their budgets on science communication aimed at external public audiences.

A mid-sized university during the 1980s would have had a lone press officer whose job was to instruct journalists about scientists’ latest research achievements. Today such a university will boast a staff of six or even more professional “science communicators”. They produce multimedia science press releases and sophisticated infographics. They create visually engaging research magazines. Online newsletters and social media platforms are used to share achievements with the outside world.

There’s been a sea change beyond universities, too. Science festivals and weeks abound. Mobile outreach – trucks, trains and even ships – take science exhibits to people who otherwise would never come close to laboratories. In some countries there’s been a boom of popular science magazines.

How did we get here? To understand this surge of activities – which involve both governments and citizens’ groups – it’s necessary to look back more than half a century. It’s also important to untangle the motives, formats and functions of what now comes under an increasingly broad umbrella called “science communication”.

Back in time

The mid-1950s saw the birth of a science literacy movement in the US called “Public Understanding of Science”. Americans were reeling after the USSR sent a satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. The “Public Understanding of Science” initiative was designed to mobilise public support for the costly project to put a man on the moon. It was also hoped that more young high school graduates would choose to study maths, physics and engineering rather than creative writing and philosophy. This, it was believed, would help the US meet the challenges of space flight in particular and technological innovation in general.

The 1970s brought controversies about the risks of nuclear power; in the 1980s people started to fear recombinant DNA and genetically modified crops. These concerns brought about a new paradigm known as “Public Engagement with Science and Technology”, or PEST.

“Public Understanding of Science” had been based on the assumption that knowing more about science implied trust in and acceptance of science. PEST was based on the belief that there needed to be more of a dialogue between scientists and the public.

Proponents of the PEST approach understood that involving the public in scientific and technological projects was more likely to create trust. They also knew that since it was an open-ended process, ordinary members of the public could call for alternative solutions. So the scientific-technological community was replaced in the driver’s seat by the general public. That’s how it should be in democratic societies.

Democracy and science

Since then there’s been an increasing “democratisation” of science. Governments actively promote public accounting by science in a bid to secure legitimacy for the considerable expenditures of an enterprise that receives public resources but is largely opaque to the outside observer.

Of course, democratisation does not mean that ordinary laypeople now have a say about what is right in science, or what is good research and what is bad. That must remain the competence of the trained specialist, in the same way that a passenger cannot tell a pilot how to better steer his or her aircraft.

But the lay public can voice an opinion about what kind of research best meets its needs. Ordinary people may pose questions to scientists that induce them to do research not suggested by their disciplinary agenda.

This puts the scientific community in a position where it has to convince the public of two important things. First, that it’s delivering “value for money” by doing a good job and, second, that it is responsive to the general public’s needs and interests. To achieve both of these aims, scientists must communicate.

Building science communicators

There are many ways and motives to communicate: from openly doing marketing, lobbying and advertising (done by public relations experts), to critically reporting (the business of journalists), to raising interest and educating (as museums or TV science shows do), to entertaining (which filmmakers and novelists do). All of these forms are perfectly legitimate, but some benefit society more than others.

And at their best, they all bring science to the attention of the general public. This hopefully contributes to raising the information level of public discourse. That is why science communication is so popular – and why university-based science communication teaching and research programmes are flourishing around the world.

The South African government, for instance, has set up two South African Research Chairs in Science Communication. One is located at Stellenbosch University and the other at Rhodes University. One of the first projects at Stellenbosch University, where we are based, will be to explore perceptions of science in different rural communities based on distance from or proximity to particular big science projects and science in general.

An online course in science communication, attracting participants from across Africa and even further afield, has also been developed under the auspices of the Stellenbosch chair. Most of the course participants are institutional communicators or media officers at science councils or universities.

Others work for nongovernmental organisations, science centres, museums and zoos. Several scientists – keen to integrate public communication into their research – are also enrolling. This online course, the first of its kind on the African continent, attracted 180 participants in 2015. More than 50 have registered for the 2016 course, which kicks off in September.

The Conversation

Peter Weingart, South African Research Chair in Science Communication, Stellenbosch University; Lars Guenther, Postdoc in Science Communication, Stellenbosch University, and Marina Joubert, Science Communication Researcher, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Calling for a systems approach to research impact

Livestock keepers in Morogoro, Tanzania examine a poster used to obtain informed consent for research
Livestock keepers in Morogoro, Tanzania examine a poster used to obtain informed consent for research (photo: ILRI/Tarni Cooper).

Investors in research-for-development are nowadays increasingly calling for the programs and projects they fund to demonstrate impact at scale. However, this push for impact has led to research becoming more producer-focused, something Nick Perkins, the director of SciDev.Net, considers to be the wrong approach to research impact.

Instead, Perkins advocates for a user-focused, systems-based approach to research that makes use of independent knowledge brokers and experts in the field of research uptake. This, he says, will enable us “learn more effectively about what works when research gets put to use”.

Read the editorial by Nick Perkins, The wrong approach to research impactposted on SciDev.Net on 4 April 2016).

#ABBC2015: Sharing ILRI’s experiences with using social media to communicate research

Earlier this week (13-14 April), I took part in a 2-day international conference on Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communication (ABBC 2015) at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi. It was organised by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Africenter. The conference theme was “Agri-biotech communications and evolving trends” and the general objective was to provide a platform for sharing of global experiences and identification of best practices in agri-biotech communications.

Over 100 people from 29 countries were in attendance. I was honoured to represent the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) at the conference. On the second day, I gave a case study presentation on ILRI’s experiences with using social media to communicate research, under the conference sub-theme on the use of new media and campaigns in agri-biotech and biosafety communications.

On the first day, speaker after speaker highlighted the need to appropriately package (and repackage) technical information, so that evening, I decided to tweak my presentation a bit;  I dropped the slides I’d prepared on ‘monitoring metrics’ [since I had only 10 minutes to speak] and instead gave an example of how infographics can help visualize complex concepts and how sharing infographics on Slideshare and Flickr can enhance online visibility and re-usability of the content.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation adopts Open Access policy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it has adopted an Open Access policy that enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation, including any underlying data sets.

“As of January 1, 2015 our Open Access policy will be effective for all new agreements. During a two-year transition period, publishers will be permitted to apply up to a 12 month embargo period on the accessibility of the publication and its underlying data sets. This embargo period will no longer be allowed after January 1, 2017,” said a statement on the foundation’s website.

Listed below are the elements of the Open Access policy:

  • Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online
  • Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms
  • Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees
  • Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately
  • Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately

Read more in this post by Trevor Mundel on the foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog: Knowledge is Power: Sharing Information Can Accelerate Global Health Impact

Open Access Week 2014

Open Access bannerThis year, Open Access Week was marked from 20 to 26 October 2014. Open Access Week, a global event now entering its eighth year, is an opportunity for the academic and research community to continue to learn about the potential benefits of Open Access, to share what they have learned with colleagues, and to help inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research.

Providing open access to research results and data can greatly enhance the impact of research on agricultural development. CGIAR’s Open Access mandate has been in place since March 2012, when the CGIAR Consortium approved the CGIAR Principles on the Management of Intellectual Assets, committing to making its data and research outputs open and harvestable.

Check out some CGIAR activities from Open Access Week 2014.

World Health Organization goes open access

The World Health Organization (WHO) has rolled out its open access policy which comes into effect from 1 July 2014. Under the policy, research authored or co-authored by staff of WHO or funded by WHO will have to be published in an open-access journal or a hybrid open-access journal (a subscription journal that gives authors provision to pay to have their articles published as open access, under a creative commons licence).

Without a doubt, the new WHO open access policy is a step in the right direction as it will make the organization’s health research outputs more accessible for use by governments, policymakers, researchers and community health practitioners, among other audience groups.

In fact, one may argue that, from a moral standpoint, WHO’s research findings on health should, by default, be freely available and accessible for the benefit and well-being of society, bearing in mind what WHO is responsible for: “providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends”.

Sharing ILRI’s open research at Mozilla Science Lab meeting

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to take part in a Mozilla Science Lab community call where I talked briefly about some of our work at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on open access to research outputs, code and data. [Evening, because the call was at 1100 hours Eastern Time, which was 1800 hours in Kenya].

Kaitlin Thaney, the director of Mozilla Science Lab, was also a speaker at the workshop I attended last week on discoverability of African scholarship, and she kindly invited me to speak at this month’s Mozilla Science community call and share a bit about ILRI’s work on open research.

The Mozilla Science Lab meetings are normally held monthly and provide a forum for the team to discuss the latest developments and projects around open science. It’s essentially a telephone conference combined with the use of Etherpad, an online real-time editing platform, to type notes or questions in the course of the meeting.

Participants dial into a toll-free 1-800 number, enter a password and a conference room number and then listen in to the call. When you dial in to the call, you are automatically on mute to reduce background noise. To speak, you press *1 on your keypad to unmute, then *1 again to mute once you’re done speaking.

It was my first time to participate in a conference call of this nature, and I found the Etherpad  interface a bit strange at first. In addition to the main section for live editing and note-taking, there is a chat box on the right side of the page, so it was a bit distracting at first trying to follow the live notes and chats and focus on the speaker but all went well in the end🙂

Also on the call was Michelle Willmers, the program manager of the OpenUCT Initiative, who organized the two-day #scholarAfrica workshop in collaboration with Carnegie Corporation.

You can check out the meeting notes on the Etherpad.

I’m grateful to Kaitlin for the opportunity to share, and I look forward to continued conversations and information sharing!

 

#scholarAfrica workshop: Learning and sharing about online discoverability of African research

#scholarAfrica Discoverability Workshop group photo
Great workshop on discoverability of African scholarship thanks to @openuct and @CarnegieCorp #scholarAfrica (photo credit: @iHubResearch)

Back to the office today after a very fruitful 2-day workshop on strategies to enhance the online discoverability of African scholarship. It was great to meet new people from different countries (Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Mexico, UK, Uganda and USA) and I felt really privileged for having been given the opportunity to share the experiences of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) communications team in using social media to communicate our research.

Research agencies represented included the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), TrustAfrica, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), the African Leadership Centre, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and ILRI.

The OpenUCT Initiative organized the workshop in collaboration with Carnegie Corporation.

The Twitter hash tag for the workshop was #scholarAfrica and we noted quite a buzz on Twitter on the subject of online visibility of research from Africa and related issues such as open access to outputs and datasets. We plan to keep the #scholarAfrica hash tag going, as the end of the workshop should not mean the end of the conversations🙂

Highlights of the discussions were curated on Storify by Nanjira of iHub Research. Check out the summaries of Day 1 and Day 2We published the presentations on Zenodo (this was the first I heard of this online publishing channel which automatically assigns a DOI, thereby permanently curating the presentations — cool!)

Access the individual presentations via the links below.

And finally… some photos of the event.

Towards increased discoverability of African scholarship

Some time in January this year, I accepted an invitation to take part in a workshop in Nairobi on promoting the discoverability of African scholarship online.

Well, the 2-day workshop starts tomorrow and is organized by the OpenUCT Initiative of the University of Cape Town in collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation. It’s primarily targeted at Africa-based Carnegie grantee organizations involved in research in agriculture, health and social sciences.

Interestingly, the invitation to participate in the workshop came via a direct-message tweet from Michelle Willmers, program manager of the OpenUCT Initiative! A few tweets, emails and a Skype call later and I was all set to participate as one of the speakers. Social media is surely changing the dynamics of how we work, network and achieve results!

The Open Access movement is growing steadily  and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the organization I work for, is committed to making its research outputs freely open and accessible, so I’m happy to be contributing to the workshop as one of the speakers.

I’ll be addressing the issue of discoverability in the local context, drawing on our experiences at ILRI of using social media as part of a research communication strategy to complement our open access institutional repository.

Looking forward to it… two days of learning, networking, meeting new people and putting faces to Twitter handles!

University of Nairobi goes all-out on open access

UoN e-repository notice to alumni

In today’s Standard newspaper, the University of Nairobi has an announcement to its alumni regarding the University’s electronic repository. All students — past and present — are called upon to provide electronic copies of their theses and other research outputs for uploading into the repository.

“The exercise is in line with the University’s Open Access Policy which was adopted in December 2012 and whose objective is to increase the visibility and impact of the University’s research output,” the statement reads in part.

Kudos, UoN! This is a step in the right direction… hopefully other universities and university colleges will follow suit in making their scholarly outputs readily available and accessible.