‘Communication dimension’ needed for European research

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The Commission wants to strengthen the culture of science communication in Europe in order to avoid misperceptions that could lead to public opposition to scientific advances and thus lost innovation opportunities.

The first European Forum on Science Journalism gathered, on 3-4 December 2007, leading science journalists, editors of national newspapers and science publications as well as communications professionals and scientists to discuss the challenges in science reporting. 

The challenges addressed in the different forum sessions included ways to strengthen science coverage in the European press and convince editors to run science stories. It also assessed the trustworthiness of scientific research and how to explaining research in an understandable way, as well as ways to stimulate public interest in science news.

A survey on researchers’ views on European research in the media, published at the forum, reveals that many scientists complain that they lack the tools, the incentives and the time to communicate their work to a wider audience. They consider that “if communication were given a more prominent role at institutional level, they would certainly enjoy a more fluent and fruitful interaction with the media.” 

An equivalent survey on media professionals’ views revealed that a quarter of respondents encounter difficulties in writing attractive media stories on “topics that become more and more complex”. Media professionals also cite information overload (20%), lack of space in media for science (11%), and lack of time to verify data (10%) as the main challenges.

"The European Research Area (ERA) should have an information and communication dimension," said Jean-Michel Baer, the director of the Commission's unit for science, economy and society, adding that the integrity of science, its ethical dimension and criticism are important parts of that dimension. "People will not accept science if they are only well informed. There is a need for two-way process - a debate - as public wants to give feedback."

Referring to the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) report on research and societal engagement (June 2007), Baer also argued that scientists should be aware that sometimes bad communication leads to misunderstanding and opposition by the public and thus "to lost innovation opportunities". 

"Issues linked to building a democratic society, which is the aim of science communication, are important to give people the confidence to live in a high-tech society," said Donghong Cheng from the China Association for Science and Technology, referring to the "democratic, civic, scientific and spiritual values of scientific journalism". 

Bernard Schiele, professor at the University of Quebec,  argued that the aim of science journalism should be to help people adapt quickly to a changing society. "How society perceives science and scientific advances has a huge impact on how society develops," he said. 

Vladimir de Semir from the Science Communication Observatory at the Pompeu Fabra University said that research, development and innovation (R+D+i) were not enough. "We need to include a 'C' (communication & culture) to this formula," he said, adding that this 'C' was linked to public education in science and technology.

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, emphasised that scientists' and journalists' goals in communicating science are not the same. "Scientists want to sell science to public whereas journalists just want to communicate science."

However, Tim Radfor, science editor of 

The Guardian,
argued that "there's no great distinction between science and journalism" regarding the work process, but "nobody ever reads a scientific paper".

After a science journalist insisted that scientists and journalists each have a specific role and that one should not try to link these two professions too closely, Steve Miller, professor in science communication at the University College London agreed that "journalists need to hold science to account, like they do politicians."

"I do not owe science anything but fabulous stories," agreed Tim Radford.

Steve Miller also said that specialised science magazines such as Nature should consider having a short section "vulgarising" their full scientific articles, so that research results would get more media coverage in the general press.

In the framework of the creation of the European Research Area (ERA), the Commission aims to promote effective public communication of scientific research activities and results. The EU  executive thinks that "the media can play a crucial role as an interface in the science domain, helping to increase public support and understanding regarding the need to create a knowledge-based society". 

Furthermore, science communication "could contribute to encouraging investments in research and justifying public funding" as well as attracting more European young people to careers in science to contribute to the EU's future competitiveness.

report on research and societal engagement by the Commission's own research advisory board (EURAB), published in June 2007, stated that researchers should remain aware of "how the actions of the past have generated negative public perceptions of research today (regarding issues arising from nuclear energy, GMOs and pesticides) and that better dialogue with the public either directly or via the societal actors could have prevented much of the friction and lost potential innovative developments in these research fields."

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