maandag 10 mei 2010

Be visible: The importance of communicating science to the public

A report of the forum discussion of PCDI Postdoc Retreat 2010

Jos van den Broek followed a ‘normal’ path in science: after studying Biochemistry in Leiden, he obtained his PhD in Pharmacology in 1981. After he wrote a second edition of his thesis for family and friends, he started a career in science-writing. He worked as a writer for different organizations in The Netherlands for some of years, and then went to the MIT in Boston on a Science-writing Fellowship.Back in the Netherlands, he worked for a number of well-known popular science magazines, as freelancer and as editor-in-chief. Since 2002, he is (assistant)-professor in Science Communication, at the VU and Leiden University. Also, he wrote a number of books on science communication and organizes many public events.

If there is anyone in the Netherlands who knows all about science communication, it is Jos van den Broek – and he was at the PCDI Postdoc Retreat with three clear messages for young scientists: BE VISIBLE, BE VISIBLE, BE VISIBLE!

According to Jos van den Broek, there are many reasons why we, as scientists, should get involved in science- and technology communication. For example, our economy would be impossible without the high-standard life-science research and bio-business that we have. So everybody working in this field has the responsibility to explain the public what we have achieved. Also, for public acceptance and a good opinion about science, we need to communicate to the general audience. Without the approval of the public, we will never get proper funding and we won’t be able to recruit talent for the future. The one and only way to achieve this all, which is the take-home message from the lecture is to MAKE OURSELVES VISIBLE and show people that WE ARE PROUD of our achievements!

The lecture was followed by the forum discussion: ‘Your impact on society’. Jos van den Broek was joined by an established scientist (Floor van Leeuwen from the NKI), a key player in industry (Jan van de Winkel, director of Genmab BV) and a consultant in Technology Transfer (Mirjam Leloux). Together with the retreat participants we discussed recent topics, as: how to prevent catastrophes about the public vaccination for HPV (that was refused by a lot of girls/their parents because of aggressive campaigns on the internet) and the fear for the Mexican flu (thanks to our Virus-guru Ab Osterhaus). Floor van Leeuwen had been a key player in the HPV-vaccination campaign and explained us how things went wrong despite good intentions of the participating scientists. We discussed how to prevent such debacles from happening again. Everybody agreed that more informed communicators (journalists) would have helped. Floor van Leeuwen stressed that we need to educate the public that in science, there are always uncertainties to be dealt with. So again the message was: it is our duty as scientists to educate and inform, to make sure that everybody can separate the good from the incorrect and misinterpreted information that we can read in the media. If we don’t, then who would?

And where to achieve this better than at the basis of our education: schools. This would also help to reach a goal that Jos van den Broek stressed: we need our talent for the future! There are already programmes to bring science to high-schools, like the travelling DNA-labs, Junior Science-projects, scientists that visit schools to explain their research… You can participate in these projects, or even visit schools at your own initiative – schools are usually keen to receive guest lectures from scientists. So also for this – BE VISIBLE is very true. Do you think you have something interesting to tell? Just go and tell people about it! Maybe we should even expand these projects to primary schools, where children are very eager to learn and explore new things. Good communication to primary school teachers, convince them that science does not have to be difficult but could be very exciting. Would that be a strategy get science to primary school pupils, the new Einsteins of the future?

It is clear that this was a very inspiring and energizing morning for many of the young researchers at the retreat (including myself). But a number of questions arose from the audience: Where to find the right people to organize an event? Can we really just step up to a high-school and give a class about our research? How to find a decent writing course? Jos van den Broek suggested to look into possibilities to set up an afternoon-course or workshop with PCDI: ‘How to be a good Science Communicator’. I personally hope that PCDI will follow his advice and come up with a course full of science writing, public speaking, networking and presentation skills. I will surely attend!

I have been inspired: I definitely want to have an impact on society that goes beyond my fundamental research!

- This report was first published on the website of PCDI -