Communicating Science Research with Followers

Citizens create knowledge – Platform for Citizen Science
Citizens create knowledge – Platform for Citizen Science | Foto: © Screenshot

The increasing use of the internet and social media for communicating opens up whole new possibilities for research to speak with a large number of people about their findings. Even among lay-people, the interest in a science dialogue is growing.

Although science has anything but a bad image among the German population, the relationship between them could still be better. So when the 2015 Science Barometer issued its finding that only 23% of German citizens felt that the public were sufficiently involved in decisions regarding science and research, this came as something of a surprise. By contrast, a much larger percentage, 42%, felt the involvement of the public was lacking. The Science Barometer is commissioned regularly by the communications initiative of the German research organisation Science in Dialogue.

The organisation Science in Dialogue was set up in 1999 by the German science institutes with the express aim of informing the public about science and its findings, initially through press, radio and TV, and then later by means of events of their own. These latter involve, among other things, a “research boat” that moors regularly in cities along German rivers – on board, an exhibition about a particular theme (some examples of the themes are The Ageing Society, Digitization or the Future of Cities). New events include citizens’ fora on controversial research subjects and a video competition with prizes for original internet clips from the science sector.

The internet is the most important source of information

According to the findings of the representative survey, German people mainly get their information about science through the media. 52% read science articles in the newspaper. Even more (namely 66%) look at science programmes on television. For 43% of those surveyed, the internet is their regular source of information, mostly through the websites and libraries of news providers. Scientific information on video platforms like YouTube or in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter reach about half or a third of those who generally go to the internet for information about science. All in all, however, only 29% of those interviewed felt that they were “up to date” on science issues; in the fields of politics (48%) and sport (44%) people felt well informed to a significantly higher degree. Can the digital media ensure that science is communicated better?

The important thing for Markus Weißkopf, managing director of Science in Dialogue, is “that people’s wish to be involved has remained stable”. This indicates that the communication of science “has the task of intensifying the dialogue on controversial scientific themes and involving people in science, for example, through Citizen Science.”

In a hearing of the Bundestag research committee in October 2015 on the theme of communicating science, the science journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda drew attention to two opposed trends: while the communication of science carried on by the universities and research institutes continues to be on the upswing, there was a huge crisis in science journalism in the newspaper world. These trends have the same causes: “digitization and the boom in social media”. “These destroy the sender-receiver pattern of the traditional mass media, turning every lay-person and every scientist into a potential sender and receiver,” said the journalist. At the same time, it was easier than ever for the science institutions “to convey their messages directly to the public”. A lot was changing in this respect. Wiarda, who most recently worked as head of communication for the Helmholtz Association, was of the opinion that “successful cooperation between the two spheres” will only come about “through the establishment of professional standards on both sides”.

An influence difficult to assess

For Julia Wandt at the University of Konstanz, who took part in the Bundestag hearing in her capacity as chairperson of the Association of University Communication, a major issue today is “the digital explosion in the media world and its enormous consequences”. “I believe that we are not yet able to fully assess the extent of digitization and its influence on communication”, said the university press spokeswoman, pointing to campaigns in the social networks and the way opinions and debates are launched there.

In Germany, a new trend in citizen participation in science is gaining pace under the heading, Citizen Science. This concept of citizen research means that lay-people take part in scientific projects, for example, by counting birds and butterflies or by observing astronomical happenings in the night sky. This provides scientists with important empirical data that would be much more complicated to get hold of otherwise. Currently, the German Ministry of Research is working on a “national Citizen Science strategy” so as to open up other scientific sectors, like the humanities and social sciences, to interested hobby-researchers.

Politicians are reacting

The parliamentary hearing in October 2015 indicated that the topic has reached the world of politics. In the coalition agreement of the new federal CDU/SPD government in 2013 we read the following promising statement: “We aim to promote new forms of citizen participation and science communication and bring them together in an overall concept.” Both the communicators from the science fields and the journalists from the respective media sections are observing these new political actors in the arena with considerable interest. That this is not possible without digital participation was already evident from the fact that most of the committee auditors joined in by means of the internet channel of the parliamentary television service.