“Data are available all around. Our task is to tell a story and help people to navigate through them so the research could be discussed over the cup of coffee,” says Agnieszka Defus, scientific communicator of Jagiellonian University. Follow the rest of the interview for more insight about research popularization.
Could you describe your role in Café Nauka (or Centre for Communication and Marketing) to our readers?
To put it shortly, my job is to translate specific scientific jargon into plain language, but I don’t do only that. In general, my role at the JU is to promote and communicate science. So basically, I popularize the science “produced” inside the JU, supporting the link between science and society. I am the chief editor of the Facebook page Cafe Nauka. This means that I write articles that introduce some scientific achievements, phenomena, and reflections every day. Besides that, I also coordinate some of the scientific-communication (sci-com) projects (e.g. scientific infographics, animations and movies presenting some of our scientific achievements, events promoting science, and so on).
How have you got this job?
I applied for it a few years ago when the JU Centre for Communications and Marketing was looking for a person to take care of science communication at the University. So I have made my attempt and decided to send my CV. It worked really well, and the job just “clicked”, so I have stayed.
Which topics are nowadays the most demanded?
Several topics gain particular social interest – those related to climate changes and global warming, covid-related matters, technological advances, medical achievements, and those specific ones, redefining our perception on certain settled issues. Of course, there are always those “triggering topics”, e.g. nuclear energy and power stations, vaccines, abortion, gender identity, etc.
“People slowly realize that academia is no longer closed up space dedicated to the “insiders”.”
And based on your experience, what is dynamic in this? How are the topics changing?
Obviously, the big topics, like covid-related or vax/anti-vax, strictly correlate with the current situation. The growing awareness of climate change helps promote the issues related to such phenomena as well. I think that people gained much vulnerability on the earth-related aspects. The optimistic thing is that, in general, the dynamics for sci-com topics and materials grows constantly. People slowly realize that academia is no longer closed up space dedicated to the “insiders”.
Are they? Is the scientific popularization content gaining popularity?
“The pandemic boosted the global urge for science understanding and brought us deeper into virtual space.“
Absolutely. People are really eager for checking out sci-com news. They want to understand the mechanisms that decide their lives. They want to see the progress of specific issues now that science is getting closer and trying to get outside the walls. And also – the massive spread of fake news and misinformation triggered a sort of scientific responsibility that forced the sci-com to be more honest and accessible than ever before.
Do you have any explanation for this shift? Could we say that the pandemic bears some share here?
Well, yes. The pandemic boosted the global urge for science understanding and brought us deeper into virtual space. And when we spend more time surfing through the internet, we have more time to read, watch and evaluate. So we demand precise messages, clear statements and easy to understand notifications.
And the other way around, could we say that scientists and experts understand or are aware of the growing importance of communicating the research result to a different audience other than the journals?
It is a complex question. The trend of sci-com importance is really visible in Western Europe and the US – there are universities and units that educate the next generations of science communicators and journalists, each journal of higher academic reputation holds a specific section that communicates the scientific findings published on its pages – and it is truly wonderful. On the other hand, scientists are obliged to popularize their research. Yet, they simply don’t have either time to do so (as they are swamped with their work duties) or, well, communication abilities – they are marvellous researchers and inventors. Still, they struggle with transmitting their knowledge to society. And that is OK – because, in this situation, this is the role of a sci-com specialist to do so. So the scientists just need to communicate with us, and we can help them and their message to see the publicity. I think that we still lack certain respect and awareness of sci-com. But it seems that scientists here are starting to understand its massive importance.
According to your experiences, how would you rate the experiences of scientists to popularize the research?
It depends. Some researchers do it really wonderfully. They engage a lot of means and time to communicate the topic of their specialization. There are also science journalists and science communicators that do a great job on this matter. But I still feel like we haven’t fully figured out the modern ways of science communication. We live really fast right now, and various content that bombs us from everywhere is truly attractive. It is hard to break through it with our scientific information. That is why it has to be attractive too. Language, visuals, aesthetics, effects – it all matters. And the approach, of course – if you don’t communicate something with interest and passion, the receivers will catch it immediately.
Nowadays, communicational strategies are gaining importance in project evaluations. What would be your tip for researchers or research teams at the start and are working on their communication strategy?
Try to talk with professionals who would help you create your sci-com strategy and mark the “hot spots” and narration lines. Try to get the resources (it is always about funding) and make one awesome thing, rather than a couple of poorly constructed contents. Always use easy words, don’t avoid humour (the virtual world loves the light content), leave out the reflection that would encourage your receivers to search for more, let them know why your information matter. If it seems too complicated, just try to catch the general ambience. Just try to construct your message in a way that could be easily discussed over a cup of coffee. And remember the “3 seconds rule” of the internet and social media – if your receiver doesn’t get interested by the very first words/graphical elements/notes/etc., then your chances are going drastically down.
What could the university do to improve this situation?
It would be indeed marvellous if the university had its own separate unit fully responsible for sci-com. The one that can cooperate with scientists and media. That can work with communication scholars, offer science communication courses (for academics and students) and comprehensively address the sci-com in multilevel strategy. It would also be great if the scientists truly understood the value and the importance of sci-com and if they would willingly cooperate with the academic units responsible for it. But for that, we also need multifaceted strategies and a whole team of professional communicators.
“If you don’t communicate something with interest and passion, the receivers will catch it immediately.“
Agnieszka Defus obtained her PhD in Politecnico di Milano in Preservation of Architectural Heritage and now is a chief editor of Cafe Nauka, UJ Facebook page dedicated to scientific popularization.