Scientists’ media role is changing
Scientists increasingly represent their research institution, not just their own work, when they appear in the media, and that is important to bear in mind, argues communication researcher.
When scientists appear as experts in the media, there is an increasing trend that they no longer only represent themselves and their knowledge or research, but also their research institution.
So argues Maja Horst, the head of the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen, who has conducted an interview survey of 20 leading Danish researchers in the fields of nano- and biotechnology.
The study, published in the journal Science Communication, suggests three basic modes of representation when researchers appear in the media:
- The Expert – the most common role. The researchers only represent themselves, their own research and views.
- The Research Manager – represents his or her research institution. Uses industry methods to brand the institution and to boost its image.
- The Guardian of Science – represents science as a whole, based on an ideal of wishing to educate the public.
Example: a spreading virus
Horst’s survey is anonymous, so she cannot give examples of real people or situations in the media within each of the three modes of representation. A hypothetical example could be the outbreak of a new infectious virus that is similar to bird flu.
It is important that there is someone who takes a critical look at the science communication and sees the difference between positive communication from the research institution and dissemination of scientific knowledge.
If an Expert type is asked to comment on such a situation, he or she will talk about the infection rates of the disease, how similar the disease is to the known bird flu and about the mortality rates. In short, lots of facts and figures about what is known about the new virus.
The Research Manager type would use the opportunity to talk about the research project currently running at his or her research institution, which seeks to analyse new viruses in order to develop vaccines, and that they have already had great success with research on a similar virus.
The Guardian of Science type would e.g. talk about the global efforts to fight the virus. This type of science communicator would explain the details of these efforts and how the increasing globalisation increases the risk of the virus spreading.
Research Manager types on the increase
The Research Manager type is becoming increasingly common, says Horst, who sees a tendency for more and more researchers working to promote the reputation of their research institution.
There is not a lot we can do to change this, but it is important to keep in mind that research communication is not always entirely objective, as there may be many interests involved.
“It’s about creating awareness of one’s research and making it appear professional. This is because more and more research is being financed by external funds, where universities and other research institutions are competing with each other.”
The research must have an application in society
A half century ago, research work was to a great extent isolated from society, but today science and researchers are at the centre of the development of society. This creates an increasing pressure on research institutions to make their research relevant and useful.
The primary objective of science communication therefore sometimes becomes boosting the image of the research institution rather than disseminating knowledge, and that is an important point to keep in mind, says Horst:
”Then the media and its users need to be aware what is going on. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important that there is someone who takes a critical look at the science communication and sees the difference between positive communication from the research institution and dissemination of scientific knowledge.”
Since universities are increasingly using the same methods and tricks that businesses use to brand and market themselves, they should be subject to the same criticism as the businesses are, says Horst.
The research world regulates itself
She does not, however, believe that the Research Manager type will lead to a distortion of research and knowledge. In that respect, the research world is a self-regulating system in which researchers intervene if somebody communicates directly incorrect information.
But, she argues, we should be aware that there may be a certain type of information that is prioritised over other information. For instance, stories with more popular appeal may make the news, while other scientific information may not.
”There is not a lot we can do to change this, but it is important to keep in mind that research communication is not always entirely objective, as there may be many interests involved.”
- A Field of Expertise, the Organization, or Science Itself? Scientists’ Perception of Representing Research in Public Communication, Science Communication, doi: 10.1177/1075547013487513