Advocacy – good, bad or dangerous?

Featured, Science 2019-05-02

The international Science Festival is an annual event that took place on April 2-7th this year in Gothenburg, Sweden, offering hundreds of science related activities and attracting about 70,000 visitors. The Forum for Science Communication is a conference within the Festival. The topic for this year was Advocacy – good, bad or dangerous? and the 450 participants were all eager to know how to make a difference in the name of science. And to be honest, the enthusiasm was well needed as the future looks less than optimistic.

Public engagement

Imran Khan

The major take-home message from the key note speaker Imrad Khan (Head of Public Engagement, Wellcome Trust) was that if the scientific community invited public engagement, a prominent research ship would be named MSS Boaty McBoatface. OK, maybe this was not the overall message but definitely the one the audience will remember. The point he was making was, that perhaps the general public shouldn’t be invited to participate in just any research question. However, in most matters, the opinion and input of the public will enrich research. In the example above, the ship ended up being named MSS Sir David Attenborough, despite a massive vote for B McB; this name was instead given to the autosub attached to the research ship).

For people without academic backgrounds and who don’t live close to a university or research centre, science is probably not usually uppermost in their minds. Still, the general public is a major stakeholder, putting (tax) money into research, and should therefore expect to get something out of it.

It’s a story that goes round in circles: that scientists are obliged to communicate their research but to be able to do that effectively, the scientist would need to hire a science communicator. There is little doubt, however, that a principal investigator (P.I.) would much rather invest in reagents, instruments or even a postdoctoral research scientist before hiring a communicator. This is not a surprise as the only thing that can secure the further income (funding, that is) for the P.I. is to publish in scientific journals and for that to happen, equipment, reagents and postdocs are very much needed. So, the pressure to publish in the highest possible ranked journal provides little room for scientists to invest time and money in working with and educating society.

In practice, this means that the entire research funding system needs to be turned around to place emphasis on valuing the output of the actual research – whether that’s educational or innovative, but not just publications. When it comes to one of the most publicly interesting topics, health and medical science, this would, in a most personal opinion, probably be the last field to modernise its funding criteria. I find it hard to see how this can be changed on the level of each individual university, there is too much at stake to be the first one to try to break the publication-funding cycle.

How to reach and teach the masses


Beside public education being necessary, researchers have different views of the task, beyond it being time-consuming and distracting from their work. If it fits with the research field or personality of the scientist, it might not be that big a deal, but many researchers are not prepared for the mission. However, they should not have to do it alone, their expertise covers other areas than that of the communicators.

To give some ideas of how to lower the thresholds of scientific education, in the closing lecture at the Forum for Science Communication, Karin af Klintberg, award winning journalist, director and producer described how to win over the masses. By showing astonishing examples from different TV and movie projects, af Klintberg made point after point on how to make people not only watch, but also like and learn from programmes about historical food, the origin and development of our language or a programme on consumers’ rights targeting children. These topics do not seem overly sexy at a glance, and it all came down to the presentation since the shows all had very high view rates.

Laughter is a gateway to knowledge, as af Klintberg explains, and she knows what she’s doing because there was a lot of laughter and learning during this session. Before you share the important facts and information, it’s important to create a feeling. Here she mentions feelings such as compassion, empathy and joy. If your audience is laughing with their mouths open, you can shove down the information – it will go right in.

At the end of the day, it was very clear that advocacy of science and facts must be a joint effort from a platform that is still, sadly, missing.

Ingela Loell

To be continued
Part 2: When what is communicated simply isn’t true