A quick survey of researchers in a science department in a top British University uncovered, that four out of six researchers felt communication of their work was merely an obligation of their job.
Whilst all but one had communicated their research to the media, none had been involved with think tanks or community groups, and only one was in contact with an advocacy group. Added to this, half of the researchers admitted their work had policy relevance but only one was in contact with a relevant decision maker.
As one researcher pointed out though, all scientific research has social impact (begging the question why all the researchers did not answer yes to the question on their research having policy relevance). What then, can explain the lack of communication on behalf of the researchers? As one put it rather bluntly, he assumes that his work will be read in the primary literature, which is arguably his job. At the other extreme, another scientist spoke of her frustration with researchers who dodged interviews and of how researchers should take ownership of their work and see to its suitable translation.
The problems are apparent even to the researchers themselves. One researcher admitted to avoiding policy relevance rather sheepishly and another asked why everyone should be entitled to see his work. More subtle insights pointed to factors such as scientists’ innate lack of communication skills. Dislike of talking to the public was excused by shyness, worry that their work would be uncovered as meaningless, and arrogance of researchers assuming their work was correct. Another common excuse given was poor scientific literacy displayed by the general public. This view is opposed by Dan Kahan who argues that scientific illiteracy cannot explain the polarisation of views on climate change.
When asked if researchers could be advocates the answer was a resounding no. The majority pointed to the perceived lessened rigour of research when it was associated with advocacy. Only one thought that researchers could be advocates and even they agreed with the majority in that researchers should only offer evidence and not prescription or opinion. Whilst some acknowledged the need to be explicit when communicating with the public (to avoid ambiguity in interpretation), presenting a clear prescription to policy was unacceptable because of the social and political ramifications. This contradicts research by the ODI which suggests that policy makers prefer proposals that include clear advice.
The REF’s focus on impact also proved a contentious topic of conversation. Half of the researchers thought that impact should not be used as a standard within the REF. The other half accepted impact as a standard but with qualifications. Qualifications included: that there is no differential between good and bad impact, its leads to an obsession with citations as opposed to caring about wider social impact and that impact cannot be compared across different fields. Two researchers alluded to the fact that impact statements were generally made up but the main concern was that impact is essentially indirect and therefore cannot be quantified. These arguments are explored in a report by the ScoPE project entitled Public Culture as Professional Science, which concludes that formalising impact may lead to routine ‘box ticking’ contradicting the very essence of impact. There is also an interesting article on the present obsession with quantity and its effect on academics, by Fischer.
The vehement dislike of impact (and to some extent communication) shown by these researchers can be explained by the fact that all could be described as blue skies scientists. Even the optimistic proponent of impact suggested that blue skies research should not be subjected to impact assessments. The value of blue skies research without its tangible impact is a topic of current debate. An interesting blog argues that it should not be sidelined, even in developing countries, as it generates invaluable scientific discoveries that may turn out to have social uses. As one researcher noted, the impact of blue skies research may take hundreds of years to become apparent.
By Laura Ffrench-Constant