Research can only improve people’s lives if scientists are able to share their insights and the outcomes of their science at many different levels, ranging from small gatherings in rural villages to inter-governmental negotiating tables. Effective research communication benefits society as a whole, as well as the universities and scientists who are involved.
Research communication matters in the broad societal context, because it can:
enable people to make evidence-based decisions and use new scientific knowledge to improve their quality of life
help people to understand the natural world and to take away fears and misconceptions about natural phenomena, such as lightning, earthquakes and solar/lunar eclipses
combat pseudoscience and misinformation by helping people to grasp the difference between evidence-based advice and unfounded claims
help society make sense of new scientific advances, especially where cutting-edge research has moral, ethical and social implications
help people to understand the nature of research as a process with inherent uncertainties and which is on-going, with incremental advances in new knowledge
assist policymakers to make sense of research advances and to use new knowledge optimally when they formulate new policies and legislation
attract young people to exciting career opportunities in science and so ensure that a steady stream of motivated, talented new minds enter the research sector
widen participation in research by targeting under-represented social groups such as disadvantaged people, women and people with disabilities
help to sustain political and public support for science and research.
“There is an intricate link between research management and research communication. In order to secure research funding from external sources, our research needs to be visible and our funders need to understand how our research is making a positive contribution to society.” Dr Therina Theron, director of research at Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Research institutions need to focus attention on their research achievements in order to justify their research expenditure, attract more investments, and demonstrate their social responsiveness. Effective and innovative research communication helps to demonstrate that the research being done matters to people’s lives and has potential to help solve real-world problems.
“Once young scientists see the response to their work from the public following, for example, a radio interview, it is like an eye-opener for them. They realise: “Wow! This is an avenue I should explore more. Apart from boosting my own profile, this is an opportunity for me to connect with the people on the ground.” Dr Alec Basson, media officer at Stellenbosch University
Researchers, too, stand to benefit from becoming more active in public life. Public visibility attracts the interest of funders, potential collaborators and future students, and allows scientists to become leaders, influencers and agents of change in their fields of expertise. Interestingly, many scientists who have regular interactions with public audiences report that they find it particularly enjoyable and meaningful. Talking to the public gives them fresh perspectives on their own work and renews their energy and enthusiasm for tackling emerging research questions.
Research communication encourages interactions with business and the wider community that can result in technology and knowledge transfer. It also facilitates skills matching between university and business, and provides gateways to enable business to access university expertise1.
“I think it is really important to communicate science, otherwise it remains locked up in journal articles. One of the motivating factors for me is that I am really passionate about making science accessible to young people. I want to show them that scientists are normal people – not necessarily wearing lab coats and stuck behind microscopes. I hope I can convince them that scientists can have interesting lives and vibrant personalities.” Prof Nox Makunga, plant science researcher at Stellenbosch University
Effective public and policy communication is of particular importance when research is explicitly carried out with a development agenda in mind. In the case of research-for-development, many would argue that research is not finished until it has been effectively communicated and used to improve people’s lives and livelihoods. Research communicators play a vital role at the interface between society, development and policy.
Consequently, research communication is increasingly recognised as a strategic activity that forms an integral part of the practice of science. Research institutions and funders, more than ever before, demand that scientists:
invest time, money and energy into sharing their work beyond the limits of academia;
make their work relevant and accessible to key stakeholder groups;
listen and respond to the concerns and expectations of a variety of interest groups;
present their work in ways that policy makers and decision-makers can use it.
“Our goal is to send researchers into the world who are able to explain their science in simple language so that, at the very least, their families and friends will understand, along with other key audiences. We feel that is an important skill that they can take with them, no matter where they end up working. That is the origin of “New Voices in Science”, a programme designed to equip young researchers with public speaking and popular writing skills.” Ronel Steyn, postgraduate skills development officer at Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Researchers themselves are key role players in achieving success with research communication. Some researchers – those with a natural gift to communicate and/or extensive experience of doing it – need little help from communication professionals. In most cases, however, a partnership between researchers and communicators can add value, impact and reach. The research communicator acts as an enabler, facilitator and catalyst in the process of research communication.
“The higher education landscape has changed significantly over the past ten years. There is extreme competition between institutions. You have to be able to show your competitive edge; you have to be able to show your pockets of excellence. And then, very importantly, you have to make the relevance and societal benefits of research visible.” Maryke Hunter-Hüsselman, manager of research information and strategy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa
1 Illingworth S, Redfern J, Millington S and Gray S. What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK. F1000Research 2015, 4:409
A key objective when you offer research communication training, is to encourage researchers (and other communicators) to explore the benefits of communication and public engagement for themselves. You can do this in a number of ways, for example:
Speak to the research administrators in your university and find out if there are any guiding policies relevant to communication and public engagement that you could use to show institutional commitment and support. If not, this may be your first task – to help develop such policy guidelines, or – at the very least – a statement of support from the institutional management.
Ask your institutional research office for the funding criteria of external donors and funders who support research at your university. You will probably find that many of them now priorities public communication and engagement in their funding applications and progress reviews. This could be an important tool to show researchers that communication should be an integral part of their research, starting from the time when they apply for new funding.
Find success stories in your own institution where public communication has made a real difference, for example in attracting funding or collaborators to a specific research project. Present these case studies during your training workshops.
Identify researchers who are positive about communication and engagement who may be willing to come and share their experiences and approaches with others.
“In my work with scientists, I often hear that they cannot afford the time to work on their communication skills, with their hectic, research, publishing and teaching schedules. I see it another way: they cannot afford not to.” Nancy Baron, director at COMPASS, USA Source: www.nature.com
“Effective research communication requires institutional support (status and policy); deliberate efforts and buy-in from faculty deans and the university’s top management. It must be integrated into the research planning at an institutional level.” Dr Agnes Ngale Lyonga, research administrator at the University of Buea, Cameroon