What works best in science communication

Research Publishing
By: Simon Pleasants, Fri Nov 18 2022

Springer Nature works closely with a large global community of academic researchers and educators who, through their work disseminating cutting edge ideas, want to leave the world better than they found it. As one of the world’s largest publishers of research and education content we are committed to opening the doors to discovery and ensuring that the research community is provided with the platforms and resources to leave a lasting impact on society. 

As part of that ongoing commitment, Springer Nature held its inaugural Japan Research Advisory Forum on 2 August 2022 which brought together leading science communicators to explore how we can better engage with the public to communicate science.

Helping scientists talk to each other

Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief of Nature and Chief Editorial Advisor for Nature Research opened the forum by saying that “the most pressing problems today are global and complex, and solving them will require solutions from diverse disciplines and solutions that come across disciplinary boundaries.” In her video address to the forum she cited the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and addressed the second United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eliminating hunger.

The questions of how we can communicate science better, across disciplines and to the public are all the more urgent in light of the critical problems facing the world and the ability of science to provide solutions.

Scientific disciplines have become increasingly compartmentalized due to growing specialization. Researchers in different disciplines attend different conferences, publish in different journals, work in different buildings and use different terminologies. Finding creative ways to aid communication between scientists in different specialties is essential to reverse this trend.

Motoko Kotani shared her experience of heading the Advanced Institute for Materials Research (AIMR) at Tohoku University. As a mathematician, Kotani was not deeply acquainted with materials science, itself a multidisciplinary field. Although mathematics is a common language for science and acts as a bridge between different branches of disciplines, communication between fields at the AIMR proved harder than Kotani had anticipated. But her relative ignorance of materials science was an asset as it allowed her to ask naïve questions, which led to a paper in Science. Other factors that contributed to the success of the AIMR experiment were everyone working together under the same roof, daily opportunities for researchers to gather and inviting young researchers to multidisciplinary discussions.

One practice that isn’t helpful in a multidisciplinary project is to have a main researcher with other researchers assisting them. “It’s a non-optimal strategy because they don’t feel ownership,” said Yasushi Ogasaka, managing director at the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. “It’s essential that everyone is on an equal standing.”

Brick making was a metaphor in the debate. Amane Koizumi, project professor at the National Institutes of Natural Sciences, said that it is easy for researchers to become short-sighted and fixated on producing bricks — such as publishing papers. They lose sight of the bigger picture of building a house from the bricks and contributing to solving global problems. This is where university research administrators have an important role to play since they have a different perspective of the research landscape and societal needs.

The current system of assessing and funding research was recognised as overdue for an overhaul, plus the need for incentives for longer term goals than publishing papers.

Other suggestions to improve communication between disciplines included organizing more non-work activities, such as sport and music, and creating environments where researchers can interact informally.

Engaging the public better

The second topic explored how scientists can turn their research into stories that capture the imagination of journalists and the public.

Aya Furuta, editor-in-chief of Nikkei Science, said that because people often struggle to grasp the significance of research, the critical thing is not to explain what was discovered but the background to why it was done. “Most research seems removed from general life,” she said. “We should try to convey the real excitement that scientists feel and create science stories that are like detective novels about solving mysteries.” 

One way that publishers can contribute is by producing plain-language summaries that explain the gist of a study in language non-scientists can understand, noted Ogasaka. Artificial intelligence may help create these.

One danger to be avoided at all costs is talking down to a general audience. “The research community doesn’t always need to deliver stories to the general public,” said Kei Kano, a professor at Shiga University. “We need to know more about the general public and engage with them.”

Richard Webb, chief magazine editor of Nature, agreed: “We should engage the general public and have interactive forums. We don’t do that very much.”

David Kornhauser, global communications director at Kyoto University, related his experience of working in the Japanese nuclear industry, where he witnessed at first hand its stratification and the negative effects. “Knowledge still tends to be concentrated among a few elites,” he said.

Furuta described how at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the Japanese public had a high regard for scientists, but that as the pandemic wore on some people began to see scientists as arrogant. “It was an education for me to realize that aspect of science communication,” she said. “Facts alone cannot convince those people, so how do we convey the message to them?”

Junichiro Yamaguchi, a professor at Waseda University, said that science illustrations and videos are powerful means of conveying science in an easy-to-understand format. Heather Young, vice president for communication and public relations of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, added that Instagram is an unexpectedly good platform for promoting science because there are so many attractive scientific images. This underscores the importance of selecting the most appropriate medium for the message.

Distilling messages to their essential points can also be effective. Yuko Harayama, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Engineering of Tohoku University, finds three-minute presentations of doctoral projects an excellent practice. “It’s fascinating to see how they convey their research in such a short span,” she said.

Whilst the forum’s two areas of debates, focused on different topics - the discussion they generated was very much aligned along one common theme - the power of science in providing us with an evidence base to inform our understanding and develop action to address global problems. Science communication is critical, and we all have a part to play in enabling, improving and expanding research and these discussions for the good of society and the planet.

Simon Pleasants

Author: Simon Pleasants

Simon Pleasants is an associate editor at Springer Nature’s Tokyo office. He enjoys the role he plays in helping researchers convey the significance of their latest findings to a broad audience.

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