‘Why communicate?’ is the title of Thursdays afternoon panel discussion during the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (July 4th). I am very happy that this panel will take place, as I think there is a need to talk about changes in science communication. And I was kindly asked to join this panel together with Simon and four Nobel Laureates: Walter Gilbert, Brian K. Kobilka, Sir Harold W. Kroto and Ada E. Yonath.
To give you an idea, of my position, I more or less copy pasted an article I have written for the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Annual Report. And I really want to invite you to comment on this. Please tell me what you think about these changes and whether or how communication plays a role in your scientific daily life.
In the digital science 2.0 era it is a challenge for scientists to be heard and understood. The new media provide a wide range of opportunities for sharing information within the scientific community and with the public.
Brian Schmidt, Nobel Laureate in Physics, is one of them: he is @cosmicpinot, a twitterer. His tweets are read by more than 5000 followers – and certainly he tweeted during the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2012. ‘I like the ability to tell the world what I see as interesting and relevant – all in a form which I can do with very little overhead on my time‘, the cosmologist and astronomer says. Nobel Laureates who tweet. Who might have guessed this 5 years ago?
Apart from the offline world with science cafes, public dialogues and open days, the online world today provides a wide range of opportunities for scientists to communicate. Also the Lindau Meetings, which are outstanding in supporting the exchange of ideas and knowledge between young researchers and Nobel Laureates, have a tradition in the use of new media. The meetings‘ website gives lots of background information and the great archive in the ‘mediatheque‘ invites everyone to click through history. In 2008 the meetings launched a first official blog, which today is the centrepiece of the interactive forum of the meeting, this community site lindau.nature.com. And one might expect further uses of new media in the future, as for scientists diverse technologies and internet-based tools offer new means of scientific methodology, publication, assessment and not at least communication.
First one must mention the fundamental change in the way scientific research is published. ‘Open Access‘ is the key word. This way of publishing is not only promoted by huge scientific academies and foundations, they even launch their owns. For example eLife, an open-access journal for research in life science and biomedicine started in December 2012. eLife is supported by the US-American Howard Huges Medical Institute, the Max-Planck-Society based in Germany and the British Wellcome Trust. Almost certainly open access journals, with their technological benefits, such as the opportunity to add all experimental data, how-to videos or 3-dimensional structures, will succeed. Even Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Nature, one of the world’s premier and traditional scientific journals, said in June 2012 that open access to scientific research articles will ‘happen in the long run.’ 1
Many new and helpful platforms make it much easier for scientists to share ideas, papers, data or figures and even negative findings. Science social networks like Academia.edu attract more than two million academics. Another two million scientists and more than 200,000 research groups use the library Mendeley.com for better collaborations (now a part of the Elsevier publishers house). The classic social media is also of interest. One in 40 scholars was active on Twitter3 with an average of 5 tweets per week in the year 2012. Scientists tweet and write blog entries not only privately. They also write about their own research, and comment and link to recent publications.
The combination of publications, social media activities, data sharing, data repositories, pre- and post-publication discussions, videos, patents and counting the numbers of downloads, interactions, likes, re-tweets and more, lead to a never-before known transparency of sciences and scientists themselves. Content, previously restricted only to specialists, is now available to a wider audience. Altmetrics – alternative metrics that include all these activities – will give a detailed picture of how certain findings have influenced society.
Especially in this new era of transparency there is a growing need for scientists to communicate with lay people, and take part at public debates about scientific findings and movements. In a survey by the European Commission4 63 percent of the interviewees named scientists working at universities or governmental laboratories to be best qualified to explain the impact of scientific and technological developments on society.
Researchers today often are not aware of this. Too many of them still believe, only journalists and press officers should take care of the communication about science to the public and ‘translate‘ what scientists do: a clear misunderstanding. What we need are highly-qualified journalists, who investigate, criticize and classify. And we need scientists who are willing and able to explain what their findings are. Especially, when everyone might click through experimental data and interpretations, we certainly need clear role models for all involved into science communication.
For Brian Schmidt, who possesses natural communication talents, his twitter activities are a reaction of give and take: ‘Since I rely on twitter to find out what is happening, I figure I owe it to the collective twitter-world to do my own part.‘ As the Lindau Meetings are at the cutting edge so far, I am wondering whether they will promote the tremendous potentials the meetings have in the science 2.0 era of transparency. How to further on transfer the real life meeting in Lindau with its open dialogues between generations of scientists from all over the world and its interdisciplinarity into long lasting online conversations and networks.
1) The Guardian, June 2012 June 2012
2) Prevalence and use of Twitter among scholars, Dec. 2012
3) European Commission: Science and Technology Report. Special Eurobarometer 340 / Wave 73.1 – TNS Opinion & Social, June 2010