That it is time for scientists to move out of their ivory tower is sometimes seen as a reductive call to action. Yet as the topic of science communication emerges as a focal point of discussion for what science needs to do to connect with society, there is a concomitantly growing murmur that academia needs systemic incentives to support such behaviour. Initiatives from the top down that can support scientists beyond mere lip service.
What needs to be done?
Placing scientific work within a larger context can be gratifying as well as stimulating for scientists. But without clear rewards, a time-strapped demographic is unlikely to add another potentially burdensome activity to their already long work weeks. Occasions like EuroScience Open Forum 2018 are a good time to be asking: What shape could these rewards take?
Pro-science communication policies across the board. Universities in the UK are subject to a national performance-based research funding system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF accommodates rating of funded science by the quality of research and disburses funds accordingly, with higher rated institutions receiving more funding. Other countries have research assessment frameworks in place as well, not always cast in the same mould as the REF but accounting for a mix of quantitative scores and qualitative panel evaluation. Given the importance of high REF scores in the UK, most universities and departments have policies in place to encourage academic staff to produce work likely to score highly in the REF. But part of pre-requisites to a decent score is showcasing impact or being “internationally excellent”. What could help young scientists go about this?
Which brings me to the next point: institutional support for science communication. Training, specialised programmes, endorsement, seminars, workshops. Imagine a pre-doctoral or postdoctoral scientist supported for their teaching, writing or broader communication activities beyond a simple go on social media and shout from the rooftops. Look at Futurity as a research highlights portal. Look at Pint of Science.
Clearer mandates, clearer definitions help. Publication is a pit stop, not the end. Impact is definable. Roles should be clarified. Is it centralised research managers who should be describing and promoting research impact within their institutions, or should science communication be about lending a personal voice and hence the purview of researchers themselves? Advocate reduced emphasis on traditional impact metrics. Goodhart’s Law tells us that any measure ceases to be valid when it becomes an optimisation target. Gamification of the system in the current academic environment is all too common.
Where does Europe stand?
Europe may be ahead of the curve in endorsing and implementing changes aimed at driving public impact of science. The new framework programme Horizon Europe adopts Open Science and Open Innovation as two of its three pillars. Yet today much of the conversation continues to centre around whether or not one needs to invest time and effort in science communication, when the chatter needs to be about what different methods could be employed to achieve specific science communication objectives.
It is not easy being a young scientist today. Even Nobel laureate Peter Higgs, one half of Higgs boson, deems himself unfit for survival in today’s academic system. The demands of productivity on early-career individuals are burdensome enough to merit attention; add to that demands to be a public speaker, marketer, and flag-bearer of science and the writing becomes clear on the wall: We need to help our young scientists.
Satyajit Rout from Editage
Editage is proud to be working with both the 2017 PhD winners and all five postdoctoral finalists of 2018 EYRA to disseminate their academic works through new content formats such as videos and interactive presentations. The presentations to be made at ESOF2018 in Toulouse on July 12th will showcase the professional practice of young scientists and their skills in science communication before a live audience.