Science Communication: putting the cart before the horse

A Danish research project on the so-called Nordic diet has raised concern about new trends in the way science is being communicated to the wider public, through untimely PR campaigns. The example of the OPUS Research Centre at University of Copenhagen, Denmark, stands out. This centre aims to investigate whether public health is likely to improve in Denmark, by renewing the Danish culinary culture. The idea is to develop a more healthy, tasty and sustainable New Nordic Diet (NND) for the Danish public. In principle, this research has potential to identify suitable food that has been sourced locally. Nothing wrong with such a noble approach, at first glance. However, since its creation the OPUS Research Centre played on a Nordic pride and promoted NND as a very healthy diet with a lot of benefits. The trouble is that it started its promotional activities before any research findings had been published.

The concept of NND has been defined by a group of chefs as healthy food with local characteristics and cultural history. This means, for example, that tomatoes, olive oil and other types of food, which are not easily produced in the Nordic countries, are not part of this diet. The philosophy of creating a new food tradition based on local products also appeals to local food producers. And there is a large economic interest in the promotion of local products. The concept of NND is based on entrepreneurial chefs with a high media profile and strong interests in promoting the ‘New Nordic’ vision. One of these food entrepreneurs, Claus Meyer is represented on the board of the OPUS Research Centre.

Some Danish researchers have been raising criticism over this practice, based on wishful thinking. “It provoked me that OPUS was campaigning in the media on positive benefits of NND and clearly tapping from a public hype on a superior ‘Nordic way’ at the funding application stage. In competition with other projects OPUS succeeded with this carefully designed media strategy to get a €13 million grant from the Nordea Foundation [which is a large private foundation in Denmark],” says Poul Nissen, director of the PUMPkin Research Centre, the Centre for Membrane Pumps in Cells and Disease, at Aarhus University, Denmark.

Furthermore, he notes, the project included huge investments and marketing strategies devised by the food industry. “Research promoted and organised in this way will never admit to contradicting results. And it changes what should be a fair competition for research funding to a fight through PR and marketing. This is where science checks out,” Nissen adds.

Backlash of substance over PR

The OPUS Research Centre was very successful with its media promotion of NND until September 2013 when Arun Micheelsen, a researcher from the OPUS Centre, showed results that indicated problems with the concept of NND. Our consumer surveys showed that “it was too time-consuming to prepare the food, it was difficult to get the right ingredients and people [had the tendency] to change the recipes,” says Arun Micheelsen. In spite of the hype, only a very small group of consumers who tested it found it practical to change their diet to match the new concept.

These critical findings made newspaper headlines in Denmark when Arun Micheelsen declared that the Opus Centre had tried to modify the conclusions of his research. He had also received direct instructions on changes from the non-academic advisory board member, chef Claus Meyer. This resulted in a media storm where a number of prominent researchers raised critical voices against the practice of OPUS and its promotion of NND. Some even claimed that it was manipulation or fraud.

The response from University of Copenhagen was a professional social media campaign defending the activities of OPUS. It also produced a report saying that there was nothing legally wrong about the practice of the Centre. The OPUS Research Centre announced in a press release, in March 2014, that it would allocate more resources to communication, with more emphasis on production of articles, social media and traditional PR.

Overselling research

The OPUS example shows how fashion in research funding and reward structures are streamlining the scientific agendas and undermining traditional academic norms. In the article “Science Bubbles ,” published in November 2013 in the journal Philosophy and Technology, Vincent Hendricks, professor of philosophy, at the University of Copenhagen, and his postdoctoral student David Budtz Pedersen traced the mechanisms of overselling research results.

Their article point to the massive emphasis on the societal relevance of research, during the past decade, as being one factor that may discourage researchers from publishing negative results. “Numerous international studies of research management document how universities have set up financial incentives and reward systems to encourage researchers to publish in high-impact journals on popular topics that generate research funding, ” David Budtz Pedersen points out. “This means that researchers often will have very little interest in spending time on problems that break away from mainstream or do not lead to publishable results. And they will tend to dress their research claims up in ways that appeal to policy makers and evaluators,” he adds.

Science communication experts are concerned about these trends too. One of them shares his scepticism. “Science which camouflages as PR or vice-versa inevitably erodes the trust laypeople put into academic institutions,” says Alexander Gerber, professor of international science communication at Rhine-Waal University in Kleve, Germany, who specialises in the socio-political and transcultural aspects of science communication. He adds: ”empirical communication research has unambiguously shown that PR campaigns in science do not change public attitudes and people’s behaviour as intended, if they only cater to the outdated idea of disseminating presumed ‘truths’ in a marketing-manner.”

He also believes that a greater issue is at stakes. “It would be dreadful if European institutions fell back into the dissemination deadlock,” he says, and concludes : “ This certainly is a major challenge for Horizon 2020, as long as research projects are mainly required to disseminate [research findings] instead of transparently addressing the real ethical, legal, and social implications of their work.”

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Alex Berger

Go back to the Special Issue: Ethics, values and culture driving research

Jens Degett

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