SciMingo: bringing science to the center stage

June 16, 2021 Article BioVox

The world needs more quality science communication. The value to society is evident, as clear communication is key to science-based policy and incentivizing funding for innovation. But does science communication help the individual researchers themselves? And what can be done to encourage public outreach?

Header image: Koen Wauters, science journalist with VRT NWS

SciMingo is a non-profit Flemish organization aiming to promote science communication by training early-career scientists. Coordinator Arnaud Zonderman explains:

“Scientists are used to talking to colleagues, where they can get into specifics and can be very nuanced. When dealing with a general audience you have to be more direct and leave out some of the details. We help scientists find the right angle and bring out the story in their research to appeal to a broad audience without compromising on scientific accuracy.”

“Scientists are used to talking to colleagues, where they can get into specifics and can be very nuanced. When dealing with a general audience you have to be more direct and leave out some of the details.” – Arnaud Zonderman

Until recently named Scriptie, SciMingo is the organization behind multiple science communication initiatives, such as the Flemish PhD Cup, the Flemish Scriptieprijs, Science Figured Out and an upcoming science communication academy (due to launch this fall). The 2021 PhD Cup is currently accepting applications from Dutch-speaking researchers who have finished their thesis in the past two years. If selected, participants get to benefit from an intensive media training workshop and have the chance to win some excellent prizes.

The official face of the PHD Cup, Koen Wauters is a science journalist with VRT NWS who helps the competitors turn their years of research into a 3-minute presentation. To him, the media training is the most appealing part of the competition, as it provides immediate value to the researchers themselves:

“The workshop encourages the scientists to communicate their research to a broader audience, which is very difficult for many. We help them to translate their own work; for most of them, it’s their first formal science communication training.”

Benefits for one and all

Recently, we’ve seen how important science communication is to the public: during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has proven pivotal in informing the public and shaping policy. But what benefits does it bestow upon the scientists doing the communicating? Wauters believes that science communication can be of huge value to researchers:

“One of our most famous Belgian scientists Jean-Jacques Cassiman once told me: ‘I’ve had my best ideas while talking to a broad audience, because at that moment I first really understood what I was doing and why.’ To find the key message in their research, researchers often have to take a step back and consider the big picture. They often find this inspiring; I’ve even known it to lead to new ideas for further research.”

“Science communication is very personally rewarding. When I interview scientists for television, they are usually a bit nervous (especially if it’s their first time). But after the broadcast, they often tell me that the experience was hugely positive, particularly when they’re contacted by enthusiastic family members saying: ‘we finally understand what you’ve been doing all these years’!”

“One of our most famous Belgian scientists Jean-Jacques Cassiman once told me: ‘I’ve had my best ideas while talking to a broad audience, because at that moment I first really understood what I was doing and why.’” – Koen Wauters

“Science communication is a lot of fun!” Zonderman agrees. “It often requires thinking outside of the box and really inspires you to be creative. The end result is often very satisfying. When you’re doing your PhD and you’re fully immersed in your research, that element of fun can sometimes be lost, but science communication can definitely help bring it back.”

Zonderman also sees some more pragmatic reasons for undertaking the work:

“Improving communication skills is a good investment in yourself and in your future career. Especially for PhD researchers, career progression is often very unclear: there are limited vacancies at the universities, so many choose to pursue work outside of academia. Whether that’s a science job in industry, or in a different field altogether, communication is important in every domain. If you engage in science outreach you learn a lot about the general art of communication, something that will always be helpful to you.”

“Communicating about science helps to persuade the public and politicians to keep funding research. In this way, science communication holds value not just for the individual scientists, but for the whole scientific community.” – Arnaud Zonderman

“I also view science communication as part of a researcher’s duty. Academics are mostly funded by taxpayers; by communicating their work, they are giving their knowledge back to the society that enabled their research in the first place. Science funding is under pressure. Even in Belgium, where we have so many top scientists, some politicians still doubt the value of basic research. In a strategic sense, communicating about science helps to persuade the public and politicians to keep funding research. In this way, science communication holds value not just for the individual scientists, but for the whole scientific community.”

Outreach: not just a hobby project

Although science communication is important, and beneficial to both society and the scientists themselves, few researchers actively participate in outreach programs. Wauters believes the reluctance often stems from a lack of confidence:

“Confidence is key: a lot of the scientists who aren’t willing to talk about their work tell me it is because they lack training and experience. Translating complex research into ways it can be understood by non-scientists is a learned skill; we need more learning opportunities for scientists where they can build confidence in their own communication abilities.”

“A lot of scientists are also worried that if they talk to the media, their words will be twisted, oversimplified, or their results might be taken out of context. To this I say: trust science journalists! Our goal is to make the story appealing and understandable, but also accurate. Scientists have to learn how journalists work and what their own rights are. In written media, you can ask to read the article before print, and on radio and television, we can only broadcast things you’ve said yourself. Researchers are more in control than they think!”

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Zonderman strongly feels that many scientists are also held back by a lack of incentive:

“In the research institutions, science communication is encouraged but not valorized enough; the career benefits needed to incentivize it properly are currently lacking. Although more emphasis is being placed on the importance of science communication, I often hear from scientists that it is still considered a ‘hobby project’: something scientists should do in their spare time, without it impacting upon their research or teaching. For researchers, who already have very demanding schedules, this means that communication often gets sidelined. To increase engagement, institutions really need to treat outreach as a full-fledged aspect of scientists’ work.”

The Flemish PhD Cup is open to applications until the 30 June 2021. Head to https://www.phdcup.be/ for more info.


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