Interview with Ionica SmeetsHow Does Science Communication Work?

20 October 2022

Interview with Ionica Smeets, Nature Marsilius Visiting Professor for Science Communication in the 2022 summer semester

There is no patent recipe for good science communication, says Prof. Dr Ionica Smeets. She has a professorship at Leiden University (Netherlands) where she heads the research group on Science Communication and Society. Good science communication starts with the willingness to take responsibility – for your own research and for the impact it has in society. In the interview, Prof. Smeets explains why that is so important.

Porträt Ionica Smeets

You have a doctorate in mathematics, worked as a science journalist for a long time and are now doing research in the field of science communication. How did that come about?

Smeets: That happened more or less by accident. I have always enjoyed writing but was also good at maths. I didn’t want to waste this talent. While studying for my PhD it struck me that people with an interest in mathematical questions had hardly any opportunities of finding out about them in a generally comprehensible way. Together with a fellow student I had the idea of a maths blog. This blog became very popular and inquiries came in from TV and national newspapers. At that point in time I had already taken courses in science journalism and it became clear to me that I preferred to work till late in the evening on a newspaper article on a mathematical topic than to get down to my dissertation. If you want to understand how science communication functions, you should also study it. Now I lead my own research group and am responsible for a master’s course on this topic.

You are researching how science communication can contribute to bridging the gap between science and society. What constitutes good science communication?

Smeets: It’s about setting up dialogues, getting into conversation with people and swapping ideas. Today, knowledge comes from different sources and science is only one of them. We have to take that seriously. I don’t think it’s a good idea to only quote facts because science has a very emotional dimension. Good science communication starts with asking myself what I want to achieve. Do I want to give information about a topic? Or do I want to influence an attitude or opinion on a specific subject, or perhaps even change that attitude? Those are two very different things. Sometimes what you really want is to get people excited about a topic. When, for example, I visit a primary school and tell the children something about maths I don’t want to get them to learn a new way of doing arithmetic. They are supposed to go home with the idea that science can also be exciting for them – in particular if they are children from families with little experience of education. In my view that is a very rewarding aim. The really complicated question – and that is a difficult discussion inside academia – is where you draw the line towards activism. What does it mean to take on social responsibility? For example, should we try to convince people to stop smoking? An oncologist would certainly agree. But does that also mean that a climatologist should advocate actively for a change of policy or should try to change people’s behaviour? In my opinion these are the tricky decisions.

Good science communication starts with asking myself what I want to achieve. Do I want to give information about a topic? Or do I want to influence an attitude or opinion on a specific subject, or perhaps even change that attitude? Those are two very different things.

Ionica Smeets

Why should a scientist invest time at all in exchanging with the public?

Smeets: A democracy only functions when the people living in it are in a position to take good, informed decisions. Science has a special responsibility here. That is reflected in legislation, as well. Making scientific findings accessible to the general public is, besides research and teaching, a basic task of universities. That doesn’t mean that, as a mathematician, I have to make every tiny detail of my work understandable to the public at large. But the question of why we should be concerned with the basics of mathematics is one that, as a scientist, I must be able to answer. It is about mathematical concepts for daily life – fundamental arithmetical and statistical findings that enable us to take decisions relevant to our lives. We should take responsibility for this within our own area of research. That applies to the natural sciences just as much as to the humanities and social sciences.

Are there topics that can’t be communicated at all, or not well enough?

Smeets: For a long time, I thought that mathematics was a field like that because it is abstract and presupposes a certain amount of prior knowledge. In the meantime, I think that maths is one of the topics that are easy to communicate, because there is hardly any resistance. No one has the idea of questioning prime numbers. It is quite different with vast interdisciplinary issues such as climate change or vaccinations. These are topics about which, in my view, good science communication is incredibly difficult.

That has a lot to do with trust in science. What is the situation in that respect? And how do you reach people who doubt scientific findings?

Smeets: There is still a lot of trust in science. The group that mistrusts science has even diminished during the Covid pandemic. It is still very vocal but not very big. Admittedly, according to surveys, people in Germany and the Netherlands think that scientists don’t spend enough time explaining their research. Yet they still trust us and that is good news. However, we should proceed strategically. The people who are very critical towards science will not be convinced by facts. Those people mostly distrust not only science but also institutions in general. But there is a very large group in between, which may simply lack sufficient knowledge about a certain topic. During the Covid pandemic people with less developed reading skills in the Netherlands were asked why they did not get vaccinated. It turned out that they were not opposed to vaccination at all. Most of them had different motives. Some simply didn’t know how to arrange an appointment. Others thought they had to pay for the vaccination and they could not afford it. We have to reach out to such groups and for that we need really good communication formats.

A democracy only functions when the people living in it are in a position to take good, informed decisions. Science has a special responsibility here.

Ionica Smeets

A very direct way of getting into dialogue with the public is through social media. What do you think about them?

Smeets: First of all, it makes a great difference whether you communicate as an individual or as an institution. Last year, scientists in the Netherlands, but also in Germany and elsewhere, were pretty much in the line of fire. Some of them are still present in the social media, and that is marvellous. It would be terrible if all voices of reason disappeared from public discourse and left it to people with no expertise. If I want to communicate via the social media I first have to identify the medium that suits me best. Personally, I prefer Twitter and really enjoy dialogue and discussion on this platform with my over 80,000 followers. On the other hand, I can’t get on with Instagram at all. I’m not a visual person. When you have found the appropriate medium, and have properly thought through how you want to use it, the result can be very effective.

Can science communication also misfire? What challenges do you see?

Smeets: There are considerable challenges. It starts with how I communicate uncertainties in research. People like certainty and prefer clear answers. It has always been like that. So how do you simplify a complex scientific issue without distorting it? Another topic is personal attacks. That sort of thing is hard to control. Of course, you can try not to be dragged into public debates but often just that happens, whether you like it or not. That can also happen to institutions. So you have to be prepared and know how to deal with such situations. A famous, very political example is the case of the biologist [Arthur Galston] who inadvertently contributed to developing Agent Orange. In the course of his research he experimented with a substance that makes soy plants grow faster and bloom earlier. One of his observations was that plants drop their leaves when too much of the substance is applied. This was later used for the defoliant Agent Orange. He [Galston] was very dismayed that his research findings had been used for this purpose. He protested, got politically involved and gave lectures. He took the view that as a scientist it is not possible to distance yourself from the social impacts of your own research. And, in my opinion, that is just as true today as it was then. Science often claims to be a guarantor of progress, to make the world a better place. In return, it has to take responsibility for what happens – also for things with negative consequences.

Is science communication only something for natural scientists? What has your experience been in Heidelberg?

Smeets: A lot of science communication does come from the natural sciences. That is also true at the international level. It is a pity that there are communication competitions in which only doctoral candidates from the natural or medical sciences are allowed to participate. It is very important to communicate well in other subjects, too, like history or psychology. The participants in the workshops here in Heidelberg came from very different fields of research, something I am familiar with from the Netherlands. There were also significant differences in terms of their prior knowledge. Some had already tried out things that others wanted to start learning about. I was surprised that quite a lot of physicists were among the participants. In the Netherlands it is quite difficult to get physicists to do communication training.

Did you also notice differences?

Smeets: In Germany it seems to be less usual for individual scientists to try to make contact with the public. In the Netherlands there are no institutions like Wissenschaft im Dialog, the National Institute for Science Communication or the Science Media Center. Here I have noticed something like the Carl Sagan Effect. Carl Sagan was denied access to scientific societies because he wrote popular science books and presented TV series. However, if you look at his publications, citations and all the traditional indicators used to measure academic excellence, he did better than those who were accepted. The Carl Sagan Effect describes the phenomenon that scientists or scholars who stand out through their dialogue with the public, or who appear on television, are not taken so seriously by their colleagues. Yet the literature shows that this is nonsense and that academically they are just as good, or even better. The last ten years have seen a change taking place in the Netherlands. There has been a rise in the willingness to recognise and reward talent in this field, and to enter into discussions. Now there is also considerably more diversity in terms of career paths. Here in Heidelberg I have talked to more young researchers who were advised not to invest too much time in communication activities, or to mention their experience in this field when they apply for jobs. Things are changing here too, but that still happens.

Should science communication be introduced in every department at universities?

Smeets: Not every academic should do science communication. The aim must not be that everyone does everything, but that everything gets done by someone in academia. But I do think it makes sense to make students aware that there is such a thing as science communication, at the start of their academic career, and that it can offer a career path. For this reason we hold guest lectures in bachelor courses at Leiden University. There are also courses on science communication that are part of degree programmes, for example in biology. We want to expand that to other disciplines, in particular those calling for good communication skills. And then there is an advanced course in science communication that is offered as a specialisation within existing master’s programmes. Those wishing to take this specialisation learn the theory and use evidence-based methods of science communication. This aspect is very important to me. Science is evidence-based. Why should you rely on your gut feeling when aiming to communicate scientific results? If you want to work at a scientific level you have to respect certain quality standards. It is not enough to do your own thing. You have to check whether the outcome is effective. The impacts of science communication must be measurable.

About Ionica Smeets

Ionica Smeets studied Applied Mathematics at the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), obtaining her doctorate from Leiden University in 2010 with a thesis entitled “On continued fraction algorithms”. Appointed as professor there in 2015, she heads the Science Communication and Society research group in Leiden. She has worked as a freelance journalist since 2004, e.g. for the newspaper “de Volkskrant”, in which she also writes a weekly column. At the same time, she introduces scientific topics in many different TV formats. As part of the Nature Marsilius Visiting Professorship for Science Communication at Heidelberg University, Prof. Smeets held lectures as well as various workshops in order to specifically train young researchers in communicating their research to a wider public and contributing to social dialogue.