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The Role of Young Scientists in Public Communication

The public is anxious. Never has there been a greater need for scientists to step outside of their offices and laboratories and get public understanding and support for their research. The question is: How should they do that? Most scientists have no experience in discussing their research with nonscientists, except perhaps at family parties. "Scientists have to be trained in presenting their subject outside their research field," says Hubertien Schutter, project manager of the Netherlands Foundation for Public Communication on Science and Technology (PCST), or Stichting Weten . Gijs van der Starre, public affairs manager of the Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI), agrees: "Scientists who think it is very important and who are good at it do exist, but there could be more of them."

Schutter has recently been trying to stimulate researchers to invest more time in public communication. Together with professional media training institutes she has set up a programme of in-house training courses for scientists focussing on written, verbal, and strategic communication, and communication through the Internet, at both basic and advanced levels. The courses are quite expensive (from about ?1700 up to ?10,000 per group of 20), but PhD students can get a discount of up to 50%. "Scientists--when trained early in their career--can contribute greatly to the public perception of science and technology," is Schutter's motivation for launching this programme.

But, "whether these researchers are young or experienced does not really matter; what matters is whether the researcher knows how to present his research in the media," says Schutter. Van der Starre thinks it depends on the objective: "Young scientist can talk very enthusiastically about their research. However, experienced researchers are generally capable of placing their subject of research in a larger context. At least we need more figureheads," he suggests.

Controversial Research

Scientists, particularly those working in controversial fields, are often reluctant to expose themselves to a potentially hostile reception. But "the public attitude towards genomics is not as negative as is sometimes thought," says Van der Starre, although "of course large differences exist between different fields of genomics: Agricultural use is much more controversial than medical use." There's no doubt that the rise of genomics, with all its potential impacts on society, has given an impetus to the need to make people aware of what science and technology can and cannot do, and thus integrate public communication into research work.

This is why NGI recently opened its fifth Centre of Excellence: the Centre for Society and Genomics (CSG). Van der Starre set up this "window between society and the research institutes." His aim is that it will "become an international crossroads where society and genomics come together and where societal discussions on genomics are stimulated."

NGI is charged with implementing government policy for genomics. Since 2001 its team of just eight people has already brought numerous scientists together with investors, students and their teachers, and consumers. It has a budget of ?190 million over a period of 5 years, of which 20% is earmarked for 'society and genomics'. However, societal aspects also have to be considered in the plans of the Centres of Excellence which receive the lion's share of the cash.

Public Communication in the Netherlands

Stichting Weten, meanwhile, has been active in PCST since 1987. During the last 3 years, the focus of its 25 employees has shifted, from participating directly in communication activities to facilitating the activities of other organisations.

Although the Netherlands have a good track record in using innovative means to engage the general public in the science and technology debate--Van der Starre mentions the use of citizen panels, in which a diverse group of citizens gathers evidence and develops a statement on a particular scientific development or issue--both Schutter and Van der Starre think PCST can be improved. Fragmentation of effort, with separate initiatives being carried out independently by different institutes, is one problem both see. All 1500 organisations active in the field have recently been identified by Stichting Weten. Stichting Weten is now trying to bring these organisations together and set up a national agenda on PCST. "Forget about that," says Van der Starre. He is confident about the ability of a central platform such as CSG to facilitate communication activities relating to a particular area of research, but does not believe that PCST can be strictly regulated.

Where Schutter and Van der Starre do agree is on the importance of defining the target groups with whom scientists want to communicate. "As a communication manager I say that you have to make sure to tackle your target group before you choose your communication channels," says Schutter. Until now mass communication has been the method of choice, mainly because people traditionally like to be informed by television and newspaper. But if specific target groups can be identified, PCST can be far more directed and thus more effective.

Insight into the structure of society and the interests of different social groups is therefore required. And this is where young scientists, and former scientists looking for a career change, perhaps have an opportunity to get involved. Unlike their older colleagues they may not be so immersed in their particular research field, and are therefore better able to understand how it impacts on different groups in society, groups not only defined by age, sex, or level of education, but also by lifestyle, scientific interests, or job type. One group which deserves special attention is young people, and, being closer to them in experience, junior researchers should have a lot to offer them. The enthusiasm of young scientists can be invaluable in engaging school students with science and technology.

Channelling Enthusiasm

Nonetheless, that enthusiasm needs to be tempered by an understanding of what makes for successful communication. The relevance and importance of good communication skills was brought home to a group of young researchers during an introductory workshop at the Science's Next Wave/NWO Talent days. The participants took part in mock radio interviews. "This was an eye-opener. I have a standard story about my research, but an interviewer goes beyond that," was the reaction of one of the participants.

The Netherlands are well on their way in PCST, but several improvements are necessary. The help of young scientists is indispensable in this, and both Stichting Weten and the Centre for Society and Genomics will be looking for their input in realizing those improvements.

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