Focus on Germany

The Communication Boom

Policy makers, scientists and the media want to improve science communication. New ideas and initiatives are in demand.

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  • Text: Georg Scholl
Person mit einem mit politischen Parolen beschrifteten Karton auf dem Kopf

What do researchers have to do to make people listen und understand them? The solution sounds simple. “Just behave as though you were in a pub with a good friend, standing at the bar, and you were telling him a story,” says Alok Jha of the magazine The Economist, a beacon of British journalism.

Just behave as though you were in a pub with a good friend, standing at the bar, and you were telling him a story.
Alok Jha, Journalist at The Economist

Jha is a guest member of the jury at the Humboldt Communication Lab, a series of events at which researchers and journalists from the Humboldt Foundation’s networks and the International Journalists’ Programmes get together to learn from one another. Several days’ work in tandem culminates in journalistic products about the researchers’ work. On the final day, things get serious, and the teams present their projects with Jha offering them his feedback. He likes a lot of what he hears, some of it really impresses him. But he always asks questions, points out what he can’t understand and passes on tips as to how to improve something.

That's not really the way researchers talk

The image of a visit to the pub is a real eye-opener for many researchers. To concentrate on a few statements or even just one, leaving out everything else, narrating your research like a story, ideally with yourself as the main character. That’s not the way researchers usually do it. And vice versa: most of the journalists, of whom very few specialise in science, discover the special ways researchers’ minds work and how difficult it often is to condense texts about their complex research so that non-specialists find it interesting and comprehensible.

What do they expect from one another? How can trustbased cooperation succeed? And what constitutes good science communication? Learning from one another is the focus of the Communication Lab for Exchange between Research and Media that the Humboldt Foundation launched in 2020, funded by the Federal Foreign Office. Opportunities like this are a feature of the current boom in science communication in Germany. Admittedly, the story began 25 years ago when academics, businesspeople and politicians collaborated on the first such initiative. They adopted a memorandum on Public Understanding of Sciences and Humanities that sought to increase and professionalise science communication and, above all, emphasise the idea of a dialogue. A great deal has been achieved since then. But even in Germany, there is still a lack of opportunities to acquire broadly-based communication qualifications in academia as well as to find coherent answers to the challenges posed by social media and the media transformation that has decimated editorial offices and massively weakened science journalism.

So, the time was ripe for new ideas and initiatives. Apart from countless conferences and articles, they include a ten-point plan (PDF) by the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, of which the Humboldt Foundation is a member, and #FactoryWisskomm, a think-tank established by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In 2021, this effectively brought together everybody who is anybody in the field in Germany, from science journalists to representatives of foundations and funding organisations like the Humboldt Foundation through to universities and communication researchers. The goal was to incite discussions and draw up recommendations.

Of course, the discussions were held against the backdrop of the current pandemic, which lent them added topicality. The Berlin virologist, Christian Drosten, for example, who more or less became the scientific face of explaining the pandemic and is probably the most famous researcher in Germany at present, received death threats. The Robert Koch Institute – which with its almost daily reports on infection rates has also seen extensive media coverage since the beginning of the Corona crisis – was the subject of an arson attack. And the most important German academy of science, the Leopoldina in Halle, was threatened and targeted by hackers.

In this situation, scientists may well ask themselves whether they really want to tell a story to someone in a pub. Who knows whether it won’t end in a violent pub brawl?

Christian Drosten, who, amongst other things, regularly explains the newest research findings on the Coronavirus and the developments in the Covid-19 pandemic in a highly popular podcast, is not to be intimidated and sees science communication as part of his job. But he does understand why some colleagues hold back from engaging with controversial or potentially contentious scientific topics. “Most scientists are not used to dealing with public reflexes. It’s not part of their training, nor of their everyday experience,” he says at the final #FactoryWisskomm meeting.

Drosten’s creed is transparency. And this is equally true when the situation itself is unclear, when – if in doubt – people must rely on their own professional experience or that of specialist committees. “In a case like that, we have to say that we judge the situation to be so and so, even if we don’t have the evidence to back it up at present.”

Uncomprehending policy makers

At times during the pandemic, provisional statements of this kind have repeatedly met with a lack of understanding – even amongst politicians who have sometimes openly complained about science changing its mind. The situation has not been helped by some of the media which, in a bout of false balance, have given equal exposure to contradictory voices from research without differentiating between broad scientific consensus on the one hand and a minority view on the other. Recipients get the impression that science is divided. Drosten therefore calls on the media to urgently follow this up and reflect on the way they have been communicating during the pandemic.

Up to now, the Corona period can also be interpreted as a success story
Georg Scholl, Humboldt Foundation, Head of Communication

But all in all, so far, the Corona period can also be interpreted as a genuinely encouraging success story. The general public’s scientific literacy, for instance, has increased exponentially. Germans seem to have become a nation of experts on infection research. Terms like R number and incidence rate, viral vector and mRNA vaccines have become ubiquitous. People know about the difficulties involved in modelling infection events and can name the virus variants currently doing the rounds at the drop of a hat. Christian Drosten’s above-mentioned podcast, which is now recorded on alternate weeks by Drosten and the Frankfurt virologist Sandra Ciesek, has been accessed more than 100 million times to date. For each broadcast, listeners dedicate a full hour to listening to explanations of scientific details and discovering how the process of acquiring scientific knowledge works.

But the Corona pandemic has also brought forth the sceptics. Climate change deniers have not disappeared, they have simply been drowned out by the people protesting about mask wearing and vaccinations. The group that, in Germany, calls itself the Querdenker (lateral thinkers) suspects the “system” of large-scale conspiracies. From their point of view, the system not only refers to the state, but also to the media and, indeed, to large swathes of science.

Against this backdrop, scientific expertise and science communication also play a role in maintaining social cohesion and dealing with political extremists. This means scientists are expected to bear a lot of additional responsibility, which is more than some can cope with. If you engage in communication, especially about hot topics and controversial issues, you not only need the expertise but, above all, the time to do so, which not everyone is willing or able to invest. And not everyone has the necessary skill either. There has thus been a good deal of disquiet in the scientific community about the pressure to communicate. The feeling is that one should rather concentrate on systematically supporting those who are good at it and enjoy the role and leave it to them to do the talking.

Any number of ideas about how to bolster science communication are now being discussed, first and foremost training opportunities to reinforce researchers’ communicative competence. In the German science system, the culture of recognition for communication should be improved. A public foundation could promote good science journalism at regional level. Defence units at German universities and research institutions could support researchers who become the target of hostility. More research should be done on the impact of communication measures on various target groups, not least to employ resources more effectively, because additional, new measures will cost money that will possibly have to be axed elsewhere.

In the web of conspiracy myths

Moreover, impact research is important because despite many years of science communication, there are doubts as to whether and how we can reach those who don’t give a toss about scientific facts. So, how should we penetrate the echo chambers of climate change deniers, for example?

The silver bullet of science communication that even reaches those who have completely withdrawn into the murky depths of conspiracy myths is yet to be invented. But you can’t give up according to the successful German science journalist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim on her YouTube channel maiLab. Science must interfere, she said at the final #FactoryWisskomm meeting, otherwise you clear the way for those who twist the science and instrumentalise it for political and ideological ends. With her YouTube channel, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers, the science journalist with a doctorate in chemistry has found a recipe that might even win over science sceptics. “Conspiracy theories that twist the science are often remarkebly detailed, even when the details are wrong,” she has observed. “The impression they make on non-specialists is positive: Someone is taking the time to get to the heart of things whilst elsewhere they are just abridged. In our experience, when we dig deep into the methods, stats and confidence intervals, the response is good. People want to know what’s what. And that’s the only way you can end up winning the argument.”

Meeting people who want to know exactly what’s what describes the experience of researchers who want to explain more and better. This is the message contained in the results of an online survey conducted recently by the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, the National Institute for Science Communication and the Impact Unit of Wissenschaft im Dialog, the organisation for science communication. Eighty percent of the approximately 5,700 researchers at German universities and non-university research institutions surveyed agreed with the statement that they enjoyed communicating and thought it enriched their job. And 91 percent believed that science communication should aim to reinforce science-based decision making in society.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we can recognise positive trends in science communication – despite all the structural and individual challenges. After all, everyone involved has learnt a lot: the public about how science works, science about what it must take into consideration when communicating with the public and, finally, politics and the media about how they can deal with uncertainty and minority opinions in research more effectively.

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