“If I had known as a PhD student what I know now, I would have approached my communication differently,” says Dieudonnée van de Willige, PhD graduate of Molecular Neurosciences in Utrecht (and moved to a support position within academia). What would you have done differently? “I participated in ‘science theatre shows’. You are on a stage because you want to make people enthusiastic for science, but what I didn’t realise until later on is that the audience in the hall is already enthusiastic, because they bought a ticket and gave up their free time to come to the theatre. It is true that you also entertain them, but that was not my main goal. So, you could ask yourself if such a show was the right choice.
Or take my visits to schools at the time. Were those pupils really interested in my story about ‘molecules in brain cells’? Perhaps I would have been better off talking about myself, as a woman studying chemistry. I see this kind of thing a lot: people have fun ideas, a blog, organising an event or creating a website, but by thinking it through, you can have much more impact.”
So, what is a good example? “Meet the Professor by Utrecht University. Every year, professors take to their bicycles in their gowns to visit primary schools. But that visit is not the only thing. There is an elaborate teaching package where each pupil can learn about who their guest is, what his or her hobbies are, how you become a professor. That combination, I feel, has greater added value.”
As far as Van de Willige is concerned, science communication should be thought about (even) more seriously within the academic world. And according to her, that does not mean just talking about the journalistic part, about press releases being published in an understandable language, for example, “that is just one aspect,” but mainly about lowering the threshold. That the outside world (preferably as young as possible) learns what a researcher does, how ‘the science process’ works, how you start off with question A and end with result Z.
In the Netherlands, things have already been set in motion. There is government funding for innovative science communication projects and last May minister Dijkgraaf of Education announced the creation of a national centre for science communication. The FSE board also sees the importance and invests in a one-year pilot that soon starts: Science Communcation Incubator. The five participants (individuals or a small group) will each receive 5,000 euro. From the submissions – deadline 15 February – lots will be drawn. Van de Willige: “They will then be given a year to realise their plans. In addition, there will be a series of masterclasses, about how you draw up a plan, how you reach your target group, how you evaluate your final results, which tools you use for this.”
The researcher will receive help from a ‘mentor’, “an enthusiastic colleague from UM, for example from Studium Generale, Studio MBB and the information service.” And not unimportantly: the department head of the participant must give the go ahead (as well as contribute 1,000 euro from the department funds). “This way, researchers will feel supported and we know that the knowledge gained will end up in the organisation.” She hopes that eventually certain staff members will be given the ‘role of expert’, whom colleagues can approach with questions about science communication. “This ties in well with Recognition and Rewards.”
Lastly, a relevant question with all the work pressure in mind: are researchers dying to participate in the programme? "Enthusiastic researchers have come forward who are unsure whether they have time for it. Hopefully, the developments around Recognise and Rewards will ensure that they can and may grab this space. I hope this programme will start that conversation already. If you like doing this as a researcher and you want your department to reap the rewards, then it is a win-win situation.”