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Spreading the word about EU-funded health research

Health is an area of research where people’s hopes and concerns are often deeply personal. Many of us have strong reasons to care. The EU backs teams across Europe that are looking for new and better ways to treat disease and keep us healthy. It also encourages researchers to keep the public informed of their progress by bringing in specialised communication expertise.
“We provide researchers that are conducting EU-funded health research with hands-on support,” says Dr Ulla Bredberg of Karolinska Institutet, the coordinator of the CommHERE project. “Our aim is to increase the quality and the quantity of the communication to the general public. We also want to help researchers learn more about communication and make them aware of its impact.”

CommHERE is short for “Communication of European Health Research”, a three-year EU-funded project set up to boost the dissemination of health research information to the non-specialist public. It operates a comprehensive information service, offers communication training and support, and has seized a number of opportunities to raise the profile of health research at national and international events.

Engaging with a new audience

Not everyone’s a born communicator, scientists no more so than anyone else – even if they do recognise the need to keep the wider world informed of their progress. “From the researchers’ point of view,” says Bredberg, “there is a great need for communication support. Scientists communicate with the scientific community – they do so all the time. But this project is meant to reach beyond the scientific community.”

Why does it matter? For reasons of transparency, to start with. Public research is, after all, funded by the public, which therefore has a right to know what’s being done, says Bredberg. The EU had set aside a budget of EUR 6.1 billion for health research under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which ran from 2007 until 2013.

Society’s vested interest is another reason. All citizens potentially stand to benefit from advances that could help them to live longer, healthier lives. Interaction with stakeholders, decision makers and the media is crucial, according to Bredberg.

Engaging with the non-scientific public also enables researchers to reach out to the next generation, she says, helping to ensure that young people considering a career in science are aware of the exciting developments and opportunities in health research.

A collective identity

To assist researchers in their communication activities, CommHERE has issued an open invitation to any research leader involved in EU-funded health research. It supports the members of a growing network by disseminating information on a dedicated website (www.horizonhealth.eu), via Twitter and through AlphaGalileo, a leading service distributing research news to the media. The project also organises training sessions and offers individual institutions tailor-made assistance.

Communicating on behalf of a network, rather than for individual research organisations, turned out to be a genuine asset, says Bredberg. The ability to involve leading EU-based researchers from a number of organisations for presentations at international conferences enabled the partners to build a stronger presence than separate entities might have achieved on their own.

As an example, Bredberg refers to a CommHERE session at the 2014 edition of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dedicated to the impact of gut flora on diabetes and obesity, this session attracted a large audience and substantial media coverage. CommHERE also organised three sessions – respectively on genetic profiling in cancer prevention, on the management of new infections and on health research communication – at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) conference in Copenhagen in June 2014.

Let’s talk

For the researchers, this opportunity for dialogue with the lay public has also proved to be extremely useful. “Researchers need the general public,” Bredberg notes, adding that this interaction provides scientists with fresh inspiration and highlights new avenues to explore.

The partners are considering options to maintain this well-established communication activity after the project ends in September 2014. The need for the type of support offered by CommHERE, says Bredberg, has turned out to be even greater than expected, and the opportunity to present a European perspective by communicating on behalf of an entire network greatly increased the visibility of the featured projects.