In April 2017, Adam Hart, biologist, broadcaster, author, and Professor of Science Communication at the University of Gloucestershire, will speak to 100 society leaders at the Wiley Society Executive Seminar in London about improving research impact by engaging with the media. We asked him to share his thoughts about why science communication beyond the published article is so important, and what societies can do to better support their members.
Q: Why is it important for people outside of the scientific and scholarly community to understand research?
A: Firstly, there are groups of people for whom scientific understanding is crucial. Politicians and others that strongly influence society are faced with a great many existential problems that are fundamentally scientific in nature. These problems—climate change, food production, environmental destruction, energy generation, antibiotic resistance—play out globally, and without an appreciation of the science behind them it is difficult to comprehend their impact or to assess the worth of different solutions. I think this actually applies to everyone who wants to be an active and responsible citizen at whatever geographical scale they choose to identify.
But away from the bigger picture, science is the greatest tool we have for understanding the universe and many people have a huge appetite for scientific detail and discovery. We cannot hold science within the scientific community; everyone has a right (and I believe many also have a duty) to share in, and gain from, scientific research.
Q: What role can the media play in helping researchers communicate their work to a broader audience?
A: The media is absolutely critical but its role is complex and traditional media risks being left behind. It is now possible for people to access all manner of scientific information at whatever level they may wish to engage, including original research papers via Open Access. Social media and blogs mean that information can be analyzed and shared by anyone. The major problem, as we are now realizing, is that correctly and usefully interpreting complex information is difficult. Partly, I think that stems from the fact that science is often viewed more as a source of trivia or clickbait than as a philosophical approach to understanding; knowing the distance to the nearest star seems to be more important than knowing how to calculate it. But interpreting science requires an appreciation of some of the “mechanisms” of science as well as an ability to analyze, and to do so critically.
The traditional media have an important role to play if they can provide a sense of authority when presenting science. However, as we can see from TV output these days, there is a feeling that science must be “fun” or “inspiring.” Despite this, fewer people watch today’s science series than used to tune into complex and authoritative information every week on Tomorrow’s World. Yes, people watch TV differently now and there is more competition, but dramas and reality shows still pull in the crowds. That appetite for complex information is still out there but I am not convinced that traditional media always hits the mark (BBC Radio 4 and BBC4 being notable exceptions).
Q: How can learned societies and associations best support their research communities to engage with the media?
A: I think there are three ways to help. Firstly, journals published by societies and associations should be more promotional in terms of contacting the media with interesting research. It doesn’t need to be potential Nobel-material and neither does it need to be quirky. But interesting research is worthwhile sharing via a well-crafted press release, or perhaps by emailing a producer of programs like Science in Action or Inside Science. If the media don’t know about it, they can’t cover it.
Developing sections such as Graphical Abstracts, Lay Summaries and “In a nutshell” summaries for papers, as well as encouraging authors to write clear and, as far as possible, jargon-free abstracts would also help.
Finally, I think that societies have the scope and gravitas to run more effective “media training” than is offered in many universities (and many societies do so already). However, I think such sessions could be better badged to attract more people to engage and be far more practical than they often turn out to be. “Media practice” using recent papers, developing press releases and practicing (and listening back critically to!) the sort of interview you might experience if I was talking to you for Science in Action ,for example, can help one gain confidence and skill very rapidly.
Q: You’ve spent your career helping to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. Who inspires you?
A: I’ve been lucky to interview many scientists – and I’ve virtually always finished an interview inspired by their dedication, knowledge and in many cases, their humor! So I have to say that it is the scientists telling their stories that inspire me the most.
Adam is a frequent broadcaster on radio and TV, co-presenting the BBC TV documentaries Planet Ant and Hive Alive and presenting numerous radio documentaries for BBC Radio 4. He also presents the weekly program Science in Action for BBC World Service. Adam is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, the Royal Society of Biology and the Higher Education Academy and is also a National Teaching Fellow.
The theme for Wiley’s annual Society Executive Seminar in London this year is “Partnering to Support the Research Process.” Our speakers will explore how societies, publishers, and others in the research community can work together to support research practice, enable research communication, and enhance research impact. For more information, please contact Anna Ehler (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Image Credit: Adam Hart