Out of the Ivory Tower with Understandable Language
|Klaus Tschira Award Winners|
If young researchers can give an intelligible account of their postgraduate thesis within ten minutes to a non-specialist audience, they have proved that it is possible to formulate words about a specialist field in such a way that the attention of an interested audience can be captivated. Every two years the Helmholtz Association Centres stage a dialogue of this nature between science and society. They want to increase interest in scientific work and make scientific subjects more easily accessible. Anyone who wants to reach the public has to speak their language, agrees the Klaus Tschira Foundation. It presents an Intelligible Science Award, a project that is still very new. Anyone who becomes involved has to cut their thesis to the length of a newspaper article and then write it in an understandable way. For scientists who after all do not have journalistic training, that’s a big challenge.
Research can be told in an exciting way
Dr. Cristina Voss, Rumanian by birth and prize winner of the Klaus Tschira Award 2007 in Biology, can still remember exactly how crushing the initial verdict of a friend with a background in journalism was when he read one of her first drafts. She drew on the constructive criticism successfully.
Her article Riproximin: Schamanenpulver oder Krebsmedikament? (Witch Doctor’s Powder or Cancer Medication?) was printed in the November edition of Bild der Wissenschaft plus. Voss charts the path from the discovery of the cancer-inhibiting effects of an African powder to the scientific analysis of the research results. The competition jury concluded: the descriptions of the research path are exciting and written in such a way that the reader feels as though he is looking over the scientist’s shoulder. He witnesses how cancer researchers take an unconventional treatment method seriously and investigate it with modern scientific methods. Formulating text understandably could be accomplished if you bear in mind that other people do not have as much background knowledge, thinks Voss, who furthermore was not allowed to write in her native language Rumanian – another obstacle. As she was writing her paper, she kept sight of the fact that friends, her twelve year-old son and other parents had to understand the article. That helped. She became aware that she had reached her audience when people who had read her article wrote to her. That sort of thing had never happened after the publication of a scientific paper. The example illustrates that the “closed shop of the scientific elite” can build bridges by using generally intelligible language.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
But it takes two people who want to communicate with one another. Meteorology postgraduate Dirk Notz, who likewise presented his thesis in an understandable format and who received awards for his paper Das Ende der Eis-Zeit? (The End of the Ice Age?), practises carefully considered criticism: “In my opinion, Germany is frequently still a developing country when it comes to generally intelligible communication of scientific material.” Many scientists view it as beneath their dignity as it were to present their works in a generally understandable format. “As a result of the Klaus Tschira Award and other similar prizes, up-and-coming researchers‘ interest in presenting work understandably has been aroused, and thus hopefully – slowly but surely – a greater interest for PR work has been generated in the field of science as well”, says Notz.
There is probably no universal recipe of how scientists should write in order to be understood. Notz structured and formulated his text in such a way that it can be understood by every reader with an interest in climate problems, and at the same time a certain sensitivity to the special role of the polar regions in the climate system is aroused. He didn’t just want to present his research results, he also wanted to draw attention to the serious changes in the climate system of the Arctic.
No fear of trivialisation
Anyone who wants to write understandably has to simplify. Not every scientist is prepared to do that. The Klaus Tschira Award winners were. Cristina Voss thinks that nobody loses face as a result of popularising a text. Chemist Dr. Jacqueline Burré, who as an award winner introduced her readership to the secret world of neurons and neurotransmitters and makes specialist terminology understandable to the public, knows the worry about simplification well. However she passes on something important that she has learnt: “This simplification is however unavoidable in order to make complex specialist material accessible to the general public in a few words, and in my view it is absolutely acceptable as long as the context and content is not falsified as a result of this media-friendly editing.”
For Burré, who is currently working at the Northwestern Medical Center for the Department of Neuroscience in Dallas, there is no question that initiatives which promote colloquial communication of science are bringing it out of the ivory tower: “Furthermore I think that science presented in a generally understandable way takes away many people’s fear of the unknown, in this case of science, and encourages the public’s acceptance of research.”
All papers that were awarded the Klaus Tschira Intelligible Science Award can be read in the November issue of the publication Bild der Wissenschaft plus. It is available from the newsagent or from the Klaus Tschira Foundation.Paper by Dirk Notz (in German) Paper by Jacqueline Burré (in German) Paper by Sebastian Sager (in German) Paper by Miriam Spering (in German)
is a freelance journalist in Bonn.
Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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