Back!… to a battlefield for researchers?

A year (almost to the date) has passed since my last blog post. How did time pass so quickly?* And how in the world do I get started on this blog again? Following developments in public health science communication and social media for science communication mostly from the sideline, how will I know what’s the latest development? Am I up to speed to write about this topic?

The battlefield of Facebook

FullSizeRender (1)

And then this weekend as I was flipping through the latest issue of the magazine of my Danish work association DJOEF, I came across this headline: “Forskerfejde på Facebook” (trans. Researcher fight on Facebook). A short article about Facebook as a place where researchers who dare to put themselves and their research out there are bullied and criticized and how social media is a big challenge for people working in academia. Although I agree that Facebook and other social media in some ways represent a challenge for the academic world, I was sad to see that we in Denmark apparently still are at level were social media is regarded only as a challenge and not as an opportunity for science and science communication.

FullSizeRenderThe article is in Danish but the illustration of the article is universal and very much covers the focus of the article: Social media is a fora for heavy criticism, for fights, bullying, hitting each other in the head and the researcher who enters the world of Facebook need to have tough skin and be prepared to be hammered by both their peers and the public. The rules of the game of are different. Social media have altered the premises for how scientific results can be discussed, is a key message in the article.

Focusing on the negative sides

Although short, the article is supported by a few cases of scientists fighting over Facebook. There are even a couple of researchers calling out for keeping discussions to the already existing academic circles and journals. But is this really a telling picture of how social media is used and the consequences they have in the Danish academic world today. I know the answer is no. So why, do I ask myself, why did the journalist not bother to find a positive case story as well or why didn’t he broaden out the focus from just Denmark to also look at international experiences and trends in using social media? At least just make a small mention of it. Yes, conflicts and dramas make good stories, but I think it is misleading only to portray the battles and disagreement and argue that only researchers with tough skin can successfully use social media.

Compulsory science communication education

The article confirms me in the fact that we still have a long way to go in taking in social media in science communication in Denmark. Much progress has been made over the last year for sure, but still I feel a dominating skepticism towards using these open interactive media in science. As is rightly pointed out by a specialist in social media from University of Roskilde and quoted in the article, we can only expect social media to play a larger and larger role in the scientific debate. Being in agreement with this, I really hope that science communication education and training, including using social media in the research process, could be made compulsory for all university students. Social media have so much potential for science communication that it would be a shame if all researchers who do not feel their skin is ‘tough enough’ would refrain from using it.

I’m back

So with this sad reassurance that there is still a lot to do on science communication and social media and lots of experiences to harvest from the world, I am happy to take up this blog again and explore, comment, recommend, learn and share with all of you what I find.

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*answer: a lovely little girl came in the way


Successful exam in Public Health Science Communication

All students passed!

Not only are the students who took the graduate class in Public Health Science Communication this fall semester probably relieved – so is the teacher! The exam was perhaps a test of the students knowledge but just as much was it test of how well they were taught.

examIt has been fun going through the exam papers. The assignment given to the students was to write a short introductory chapter on science communication for an imagined new textbook on Public Health Sciences targeted public health and medical students.

13 students handed in an exam paper and having never corrected exams before it felt all ceremonial seating myself at the desk equipped with a hot coffee, some cookies, a red pen (okay it wasn’t red, but blue actually) and with my critical glasses on. I must admit that it felt strange all of a sudden to be the one to pass judgement on other people’s work.

Luckily, I didn’t have to swing the sword very hard on any student, and as said all students passed. Some papers were of course better than others. On the Danish 7 points grade scale three students were given the top grade of 12. All three papers were so good that they could almost go straight into this imagined textbook. Despite being assigned the same grade they differed a lot, and it has been fun to see that there, as I told the students several times, is not one right way to complete the assignment.

Something that characterized the best exam papers was that they had taken the assignment of writing an introductory book chapter seriously. They had a good understanding of the targeted audience and many of them had used figures and tables to illustrate their points. Secondly, they had managed to have public health as a recurrent theme throughout the paper. Not all papers were equally good at this. For some the public health perspective felt like an added appendix and not as an integrated part of the chapter.

It was also great to see that even in the less good papers the students overall demonstrated a good understanding of the different models of science communication. I guess this is where the new teacher-side of me becomes particularly happy.

Having been a student myself and constantly heard repeated the importance of making sure that your exam papers are free from spelling mistakes, that they grammatically are correct and that you follow the formalities of the exam I can now confirm that this is important. The overall impression of a paper is just heavily influenced by the annoyance of typos, spelling mistakes etc.

All in all, I am very content with the outcome of the exam and with the assignment given in the exam. It was fun to do an exam that sort of had a foot in reality and could potentially be published in a book one day rather than having them write a paper which had me and the co-examinator as target audience.

Despite it being an exam (exams are rarely fun) I hope the students enjoyed writing this introductory chapter just a little bit. I at least enjoyed reading them!


Why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

The course Public Health Science Communication went live Wednesday last week! And based on the first experiences it survived the encounter with the students, is still in good shape and looking forward to moving on to module two this coming Wednesday.

Since the concept “public health science communication” is still not a household concept and does to my knowledge not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry or a crystal clear definition, I found it useful during the first lesson to ask the students what they, in one sentence, considered public health science communication to be. It gave some interesting responses, of which I here share a few:

In one sentences: What is public health science communication?

  • Simplifying public health science so that it is easier to understand for the public
  • Public health science communication is the science of communication of scientific research to the public
  • Communicating the essence of public health research to the public
  • It’s an interaction among public health workers, public and policy makers to improve health of general public
  • Ways to create greater understanding amongst public, governments and general public about advances in science in particular and relevant formats
  • Communication of scientific health information translated into understandable messages to the public
  • That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

Most of the responses are not surprising, and combining them gets us around several aspects of the concept. I do however still find it a little surprising that focus is so heavily on communicating to the public. Where is communication with researchers? Only a few mention e.g. policymakers and public health practitioners. Of course the word public could be understood in its broadest sense – but my feeling is that many are thinking about Mr and Mrs Smith/Jensen/Sanchez when they say “the public”. Some also understood public health science communication to be communicating for behavioral change, which would probably fall more under health communication. Secondly, it seems that science communication is regarded as being about communicating to the public and not with the public. I look forward to expanding the students’ perception of this in the coming weeks.

All the responses are interesting, but my favorite response is this one: “That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?” In my head it nails it completely.

I also asked the student what they expected to learn. Below some of their responses:

What do you expect to learn?

  • How to be a better communicator of science
  • I expect to learn something about how to communicate public health science to the public, what information is interesting for ”the public” and which strategies are useful in communicating and how I do it
  • Something about the relation between the scientific world and the public – the role of science communication
  • How to better communicate health related information to individuals  (with diverse backgrounds) + communities in an effective and respectful manner
  • A broader way of thinking/analysing/communicate science so it is easier to implement them locally/nationally/internationally
  • How to make research tangible for people outside the field. How to sell the message
  • How to communicate to the public 1) what is public health science, 2) communicate results of public health sciences
  • Challenges of communication with policy makers from public health workers point of view
  • Theories and practical stuff about communication

I’m exited about what the responses. Hopefully, the students will feel that they have been given a few tools, and a better understanding of the role of science communication in public health when the course is over. I also hope that they will have seen that public health science communication includes more than reaching the public and ‘selling messages’, but is just as much about engaging and interacting with the public (understood in its broadest sense) and that communication is not only in aimed at educating the public but may also serve a purpose for their research and for themselves as researchers.

Although the students’ expectations and the objective of the course weren’t all that different I still clarified what the course was not – and what it was intending to be. Perhaps this may be useful to readers on this blog as well.