How do you communicate “science communication”?

One of my tasks for today was to write a 1800 character text about Science communication for the professor installation booklet at Lund University. Or rather, about Vetenskapskommunikation, where “vetenskap” includes not only natural sciences, but also e.g. social sciences, that, in turn, includes research fields concerning science communication, public understanding of science and how science is communicated in schools and in informal settings. Many times, I have observed that the wide range of topics included in “Vetenskapskommunikation” leads to confused communications.

Research communication

One aspect of science communication is research communication, which, of course, will be visible in the installation booklet. Sometimes it is claimed that “research not communicated is research not done“.
Universitites, of course, have a duty to communicate the research, but we need to reflect on what should be communicated, how, where and by whom. The answer to these questions depends of course also on who you are communicating with.

The research communication in the installation booklet is a special case, with researchers presenting their own research fields, to colleagues, family and friends. We can reflect for a moment on what is communicated, going through old presentations.

Of course, no one goes through the nitty-gritty details and talks about the time spent of debugging a computer program or an experimental setup, nor chasing a small deviation from an expected result, that may have resulted from a mistake, an omission, numerical uncertainty, or small perturbing electric fields. Instead, the texts present a special aspect of the work of the installandi, putting the research in context of other work, discussing the questions and collaborations involved in their special research field. The texts tend to focus more on the “product” than on the “process”. The details of the work, of course, are communicated in other media, during scientific conferences and informal meetings, in published papers and theses.

The installation event also communicates an image of scientists and that we do not all look the same – although during the installation ceremony, we will all look more equal than usual.

Science journalism, science and research communication

Research is not only communicated by researchers, themselves. Science journalists, although a somewhat endangered species, do play an important role as do science centers and other informal learning institutions. E.g. at Lund University, the Vattenhallen science centre, works closely with researchers to find interactive ways to communicate results to the public, including school classes.

The annual Gothenburg international science festival hosts a Forum for Research Communication. The 2014 Forum aimed in particular for University communication officers. However, this seemed to imply a subtle shift of focus, from a focus on communicating research to being a general PR channel for the university. This seems confirmed by my recent experience, trying to browse through Swedish universities’ youtube channels to find short movies about researchers working on light-related topics for Ljus2015 (the Swedish branch of the International Year of Light, Light2105.org). It was not so easy. It was much easier to find video clips about what it is like to be a student, and I recalled the 2013 science festival presentation whenVivi-Anne Perry talked about  “Pimp my science – is it all just PR now“. (She also talked about Science churnalism – where a University press release quickly reaches a large number of www-places).

Communication cultures

After my first successful attempt to cut down a text to 1800 characters, I discovered that the instruction emphasized that the report should be written in first person. This does not come naturally after many years as a physics researcher, so I had to start again. I decided to focus on science learning in informal settings, and the collaboration with the amusement parks at Gröna Lund and Liseberg. The different aspects of science communication at play in this work is described in more detail in a conference paper from 2013.

After reaching 1800 characters again, I checked earlier presentations and searched a few of the electronic documents for “jag” (=”I” in Swedish) – and found a remarkable difference in the number of occurrences for presentations from different faculties. In spite of the suggestion that, since “many areas of physics, chemistry and mathematics are very difficult to present”, “a possibility may be to present what brought you into the research”, presentations from these areas are least likely to use first person.

Indeed, our sciences, questions and cultures are different. These cultures also meet in the new licentiate school at Lund: on Communicating Science in School.

I do look forward to reading the presentations from the other installandi for 13 March.

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