Novel strategies in science communication: Fiction or future?

Guest blogger, Tjitske van Engelen (details below) writes…

It is Friday night eight ‘o clock. Everybody tunes in via online podcasts, live feed webpages or plain old television. And there he is; the man of the hour. Respected by fellow man for his charismatic behavior and loved by women for his enchanting smiles. The well-known jingle introduces the vibrant young show host whilst he enters the stage. Tonight will be a night to remember. It is one of these shows that everybody will talk about during the Monday morning coffee break. No way you are not watching. It is the quarter-finals: ‘thrombosis in neonates’ versus ‘fluid resuscitation in the critically ill’. A Norwegian versus a South-African researcher. The jury consists of one hundred participants with no prior knowledge of the fields of research. The contestants are scored as usual based on the three pillars of the show. First, did I learn something new? Secondly, can I repeat what I have learned? And thirdly, does it make me want to learn more? In the beginning, many contestants made a rookie mistake: too much information squeezed in the set three-minute-pitch. It was rather funny, to hear them stumble over their difficult words. Who has ever heard of macrophages before? Well, only two of the jury members, as it turned out. However, after last week’s show (‘antibiotic resistance’ versus ‘genetics and infection’) the number of Google hits for meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus were sky high, adding to the third pillar of the show. Apparently people wanted to learn more after the engaging talk of the young scientist who explained her strategies to reduce the use of antibiotics. She has won an additional 30 seconds of pitch time for her semi-finals, kindly donated by Google. Fiction or future?

Funding for research is ever more a subject of public debate. Society wants to know how their money is spent. Why should we invest in a difficult and expensive functional analysis of new proteins in mice when we can also try and cure cancer? Perhaps because one day understanding of these proteins could lead to novel lifesaving therapies. That is the story a researcher should sell. High impact research is no longer solely dependent on the capacity of your brain. You might be brilliant, but if you cannot convince others of your brilliance, your funding will diminish. New skills are required. Describe your billion dollar plan in a catchy 140-character tweet and you have reached a new level of brilliance. There is criticism on these new demands in science. Researchers are not your typical salesman. Most of them do not want to be trained in sales. And maybe we do not need to train everybody in the use of social media and engagement with the public. Do not force your post-docs into media training. Select those with a natural talent or drive to tell stories and train them to represent your group. A focus on science communication will be essential for the future of research.

It is Friday night eight ‘o clock. Everybody walks towards the gate. The international flight from Boston to London is quickly boarded. You fasten your seatbelt and after the safety introduction you check your flight entertainment program. You suddenly remember. This is one of those Sponsored Science Flights. The airline collaborates with several biomedical industries to arrange a small discount for your next flight if you are willing to follow a short course. You browse through the program. What is the best way to earn my discount? Do I prefer ‘The burden of breast cancer and future scientific perspectives’ or ‘Smoking, public health and challenges for the next decade?’ On your screen you see that about half the passengers have already decided to follow a course. You can see how far along the course they are, but obviously their study results are anonymous. The course is actually quite fun. During the flight you watch some short movies, join interactive quizzes with fellow travelers on the plane and engage in a discussion board to share your thoughts. The course even tells you to take a break and enjoy the in-flight meal. Exactly one hour before landing all participating travelers enter the digital quiz and try to earn their discount. Whilst London is slowly getting closer you get more and more intrigued by the scientist explaining the use of genetic profiling in breast cancer. The last movie was rather complex. You can watch it again to prepare for the final quiz. Obviously there is no harm done if you do not pass the quiz, but a small discount is always nice… Fiction or future?

Name: Tjitske van Engelen

Institution: Academic Medical Center, The Netherlands

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