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This page was published on 01/08/2006
Published: 01/08/2006


Last Update: 01-08-2006  
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Science in society


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British scientists struggling to communicate?

Scientists in UK universities are struggling to meet all the demands of a modern ‘research-driven' culture, according to a new study commissioned by the Royal Society. And communicating their work to the public – as urged by their governments and the EU alike – is not their main priority, they say. 

Counting the costs: UK researchers see little added value in public engagement unless it counts for their career.
Counting the costs: UK researchers see little added value in public engagement unless it counts for their career.
© PhotoDisc

Wearing many hats is increasingly common for researchers in Europe and beyond. Today, on top of the pressure to publish results, secure funding for their departments and firm up their own careers through ‘hard research', they are increasingly being urged to communicate their work more broadly. But many say this is hurting their careers.

According to the survey, called ‘Factors affecting science communication', the majority of scientists feel they need more time for their actual research. They say that public engagement activities, such as debates, exhibitions and press work, can be “bad” for their careers.

There is a residual impression that those who perform this role well are “not good enough” for an academic career. Public engagement is seen as “light or fluffy” and risks reinforcing negative stereotypes of women, in particular, the Royal Society suggests in a statement.

David Wallace of the Royal Society said that science communication must clearly happen in the context of allowing scientists to carry on conducting excellent research while progressing their careers. He acknowledges that it is “not desirable to require all scientists to undertake public engagement work” and takes encouragement from those who do. 

“[So] many scientists have, despite all the perceived barriers, taken part in science communication activities. The report shows that we need to find ways to make it easier for [them] to engage in a genuine dialogue with the public so that those outside of the scientific community can better understand, support, and indeed challenge, the science that is being undertaken in our universities while, at the same time, helping scientists understand public interests and concerns.”

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, echoes this view in his preface to the report: “The role of science in public policy is becoming ever more pervasive. Many scientists are willing to engage in dialogue and debate, but they need encouragement and guidance, and they need to feel that their efforts are valued.”

Getting behind the department
The survey confirms this. Despite evidence of a general resistance to communicate, 45% of respondents said that they would still like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science. Three-quarters reported having taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the past 12 months. 

The Royal Society set up the study, with the support of Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, to provide evidence on current attitudes and practice among scientists. Nearly 1 500 UK researchers, at different stages in their careers, completed an on-line questionnaire and 41 took part in interviews to establish the level of current ‘outreach' activity, and how such activities were perceived.

The vast majority (81%) felt departmental reward/payment schemes would encourage more science communication activities, rather than individual rewards or prizes. But a sizeable 76% said they would be encouraged to get more involved if it helped their careers. These findings will go towards forging a coordinated approach among UK research funders to provide better recognition, support and rewards for public engagement activities in universities and colleges.

For its part, the EU still actively encourages EU-funded projects to communicate their findings to the general public, bridging a perceived gap between science and society and promoting a positive image of R&D in general. Other key objectives to boost science and raise awareness of its contributions to society include EU-organised science prizes, such as the Descartes Prizes for collaborative research and communication, and schemes for attracting more young people into scientific careers in Europe.

Royal Society, Euractive

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See also

Factors affecting science communication (29 June 2006, report)

Research pressure in universities is barrier to scientists communicating work to public (Royal Society, 29 June 2006, press release)

Communicating science - a Scientist's survival kit (Europa, 29 May 2006, pdf)

European research - A guide to successful communications (Europa, July 2004, pdf)

Communicating European Research 2005 (Europa, 14-15 November 2005, event)

Scientists think communication is bad for their careers (Euractive, 25 July 2006)

Descartes Prizes (Europa)

Science and society portal (Europa)

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