Opinion: PR & Science
Katharina Horstmannshoff in conversation with Dr. Simone Rödder
The National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the National Academy of Science and Engineering (“acatech”) and the Union of German Academies of Sciences have all called for better scientific communication in Germany. The academies published a joint report in June 2014: Structuring Communication Between Science, the Public and Media.
Ms. Rödder, your expertise has been integrated into the report. What do you think of the final version?
Dr Simone Rödder from the KlimaCampus Hamburg. Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
I find the proposal to anchor scientific communication in the recommendations for good scientific practice very positive. The statement that scientific communication also belongs to scientific practice is an important sign.
In dealing with media communication, is it necessary to advise scientists in observing standards of good scientific practice ?
Scientists who have contact with the media for the first time are often ill prepared. When dealing with the press, it is important to avoid exaggeration. It is also important to refrain from concealing uncertainties or problems involved in one’s work, otherwise this could lead to undesired false alarms and media hype.
The academies recommend sanctions against those who violate good scientific practice in communication with the media. What do you think?
That’s difficult to address because attribution problems arise. Concealing uncertainties and failing to present conflicting evidence would be considered a violation of good scientific practices. So I have to ask myself here, how can we differentiate between what the scientist failed to say or what the journalist failed to write?
Climate research has frequently come under criticism lately.
This, of course, is extremely relevant for climate research. Due to its highly political nature and media interest, the room for various intra-scientific positions is smaller than is good for a specialized debate. For a long time, a consensus has been presented in communication with the public, which really doesn't exist within the field of study. Controversies over deviating data or errors, which always occur in research, were not communicated openly. The ideologisation – in science too – is seen as a reaction to climate change sceptics. The credibility of climate research has suffered from this behaviour.
The internal evaluation criteria for scientists are to be revised. Why?
The way incentives work now is based on how much and how quickly one publishes. Sometimes this leads to the publication of fragmented work to increase the number of publications. Sometimes the work is published several times in only slightly altered form. This is irritating for the reader and a burden on the systems of communication. If you ask me about the situation, I’d say that you should slow down the whole incentive mechanism so there is no longer the pressure to publish as much. The end result is that peers must judge how significant the particular scientific effort is. The number of publications shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
Katharina Horstmannshoff. Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
The authors of the report discuss another criterion for evaluation: what is known as the “media attention indicator”. What do you think about this aspect?
I think this incentive is entirely wrong for scientists. You can’t compare the media presence of a sinologist with that of Prof. Hans von Storch. You'd wind up with very strange results. There would then be an incentive for scientists to take on research topics that would be enticing to the media and to ignore research that’s more difficult to communicate – from a scientific point of view, this would result in a loss of autonomy.
So, does that mean there should be no incentive system for scientists to involve themselves in stronger public engagement with the media or in public relations?
From the view of the public as well as from public relations there are, of course, advantages when the scientists are motived by such engagement. Many people get involved in events that aren't connected to mass media. Events for children or open houses are very popular. They do it because it’s fun. I think that prizes – prizes with considerable monetary awards – would be a good way to reward engagement and to motivate passive individuals.
The interview was conducted by Katharina Horstmannshoff.
Published in2science #1 (December 2014)