Millions for science communication

How do you involve the public in scientific research? How do you distribute the results and insights? Research funding organisations are budgeting several millions of euros to answer these and other questions.

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A shift is occurring in the world of academia. Not all scientists need to be featured in top academic journals, contrary to previously-held popular belief. Under the moniker ‘recognition and reward’, more attention is being paid to other tasks, such as teaching and science communication.

As a result, shifts are also expected to take place in budget allocation. Research financier the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and science association the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) have each budgeted 1 million euros for science communication, i.e. the sharing of knowledge with the general public.

As always, scientists applying for NWO funding must submit a solid proposal. Hanneke Koppers, director of the Communication Expertise Center of TU/e, says that under the auspices of the umbrella organisation for Dutch universities VSNU the directors of Communication and Marketing have applied for funding. According to Koppers the funding is intended for an outreach campaign, with which the twelve universities want to show the public that these institutions are standing right in the midst of society. Koppers: "With the help of influencers we want to make evident in which ways universities are making a contribution to your daily life. For this campaign which goes under the name 'Influencers & Science, a combination that hits the target', an application at NWA Wetenschapscommunicatie 2020 was submitted. We hope that it will be awarded."


The organisation will be announcing the first recipients at the end of this month. A noteworthy fact: NWO wants to measure the impact of this type of science communication and has asked two experts to develop a toolbox for this purpose. One of those experts is Utrecht-based social psychologist Madelijn Strick. Because you may have great ideas on how to reach the general public, but does this equate to impact? Plus, how do you determine this?

Strick has been conducting research into this topic for many years. “Science communication may not be the right term”, she says. “The term is reminiscent of lectures, guided tours and radio interviews that you hope will leave some lasting impression on your audience. We need to go a few steps further. It is important for people to get involved.”

The social psychologist believes public engagement is a better term. “Talking to people improves your research”, she says. “You not only share your expertise, but you also get inspired. You find out whether your research evokes a response in people and which subjects are sensitive.”


To illustrate her point, she mentions a video she made in Utrecht that includes people from various demographics. She asked them questions such as “who among you is in love?” or “who among you has ever been denied entrance to a nightclub?” to demonstrate that they have more in common with each other than they might have thought. The result is a new perspective on other people. “And you achieve more than simply studying views and opinions.”

But there’s also still the traditional type of science communication, shared by enthusiasts eager to share their own wonderful scientific journeys. These are people that make you want to become a scientist yourself.

Professor of Chemistry at the University of Groningen, Marieke Kamperman, is a good example. Her research focuses on strong materials. She has a wonderful way of telling pupils how strong a spider’s thread is and what a marvellous mystery this material is: for a brief moment it is fluid and then suddenly, as if by magic, it becomes thin and strong.


The professor may be eligible for a grant from the new KNAW fund, for which applications may be submitted until mid-January 2021. This KNAW fund differs from NWO calls in that only deans are able to apply, and only for groups consisting of at least three researchers. But the most important condition is that the study should already be underway, as is the case for Professor Kamperman.

“I just really enjoy explaining my job to pupils. I just sort of fell into this line of work. I worked in Wageningen for a while, where they had a science hub that paired scientists up with schools. I discovered that it made me feel energised and I became very motivated to continue on this path. One thing I like to tell pupils is that geckos can walk on the ceiling: how do they do that exactly?” She estimates that her educational activities take up at least one-tenth of her time. “But it feels like no time at all.”

She loves talking about the pupils she teaches, but she also connects with others. “When we work on a glue for wet tissue, it may be suitable for use in surgery. Timely involvement of surgeons in your research is useful in this case.”


There is one type of science communication that has traditionally had a big impact on society: research and advice on behalf of the government or the business community, and this is not eligible for the two grants mentioned. However, a look at policy during the coronavirus crisis reveals that the government continues to rely on a panel of experts whose job it is to explain their expertise to laypeople.

Although it makes sense for the government and the business community to reach out to scientists for advice on occasion, it sometimes seems like their reason for doing so is to legitimise their own point of view: look everyone, science is on our side! It is not surprising that this approach gets criticised as well. How impartial are scientists who give advice for hire? Can they be influenced and, if so, to what extent? Perhaps they are simply doing the dirty work of politicians and entrepreneurs?

Grey area

Strick believes scientists should carefully consider this grey area. “But”, she says, “that’s easy for me to say, because I do not write policy recommendations. My line of work is far removed from politics. I write about living a healthier and happier life... a topic generally without opposing views.”

Kamperman also acknowledges that science communication is about more than just the joys of sharing knowledge. When science has an impact, you need to consider how this information will be used to force the world in a specific direction. Ethical issues are at play in some disciplines – and for a proper discussion, she believes outsiders are needed.

They both say that this is where science communication and, by extension, open science come in. Kamperman: “It is important to show society what scientists do exactly.”

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