I still remember the first article I ever wrote as a science communicator. Entitled Saving the Cabbage, this 1000-word piece was a strenuous output that took me close to a month to complete. While it was a huge accomplishment that proved my worth in the scientific research institute I had just joined, this piece is not one that I front as my most outstanding work.
My maiden article was compiled largely through desk-based research on an innovative technology to control pests of cabbage in Kenya. A few months later, I accompanied the technology’s researchers to field sites where it was being implemented, presenting me with an opportunity to interview farmers, extension workers and even the researchers. The result was a much longer article that took a shorter time to write and went on to win an award for excellence in science writing.
These two scenarios taught me an important lesson. Placing the producers and users of knowledge at the centre of the communication process had improved my storytelling and, hopefully, made the end product more effective by enhancing the profile of the various individuals involved. Such visibility is important, as it reinforces the agency of researchers and end-users enabling them to articulate their motivations and inspirations in the generation and utilisation of knowledge. This contributes to the credibility of research findings, builds confidence in their uptake and stimulates further support. In effect, a virtuous cycle is created in the research process, from knowledge production, dissemination, uptake and resource allocation.
Drawing from my experiences, and with Kenya in mind, I would suggest the following five strategies (by no means exhaustive) towards enhancing the profiles of researchers and end-users of research.
- Enhanced storytelling strategies: In many cases, research coverage takes a news format with the occasional quote from the researchers involved. Where the focus is on research impact, end-users are often represented in statistics. Communicators can enhance the profile of researchers by including their short biodatas in media releases (e.g. as part of a notes for editors). While such biodatas might not be incorporated into the news item, they could trigger media interest in pursuing human interest or feature articles built around the researchers. Such stories can also be purposely authored for broader media sections, and for institutional channels such as annual reports, calendars, project brochures and websites. The electronic media presents a range of opportunities for people-centred products, from documentaries to reality TV shows.
- Let researchers and end-users tell their story: In many research organisations (in Kenya especially), communications is largely left to intermediaries (such as communications officers and journalists). It is important for researchers and end-users to also tell their story, to bring to light aspects, either about themselves or about the research, that are often left-out in the negotiations with journals or journalists. The rapid growth of technology presents new communications approaches and opportunities. From blogging, using images, to creating hashtags, researchers and end-users now have a range of tools to raise their own profiles, while stimulating discussions about their research. What is needed, is for them to be accorded by their institutions, the freedom and the skills to embrace these emerging opportunities.
- Biographies, either as academic or literary efforts, can raise the profile of researchers, while heightening understanding of the social, political and economic processes that have shaped the production and utilisation of knowledge. In my postgraduate research, I found the use of biographical research extremely useful in investigating and analysing the growth of scientific communities in the South, while mainstreaming the role of individuals, an often overlooked, yet important aspect. Other processes for documenting individual contributions in the production of knowledge include publication of Festschrifts, witness seminars, testimonies about researchers by other researchers, as well as publicly accessible databases of researchers hosted either by government or academic institutions.
- Systems for recognition of excellence: In general, awards and recognitions are important sources of prestige and esteem. Indeed, in my research I found a strong correlation between awards and the visibility of scientists within and beyond their countries. My findings showed that winning awards elevates the way scientists are viewed, for instance by their governments, often leading to key appointments. It also accords them respect and recognition within the international scientific community, and, therefore, access to the range of rewards within it. For this reason, awards systems for researchers (and end-users of research) are needed, especially in countries like Kenya where such programmes are non-existent.
- Events: Africa is a continent that has a strong culture of festivity and celebration, upon which national or continent wide events can be built to celebrate those who generate knowledge. The benefits of such occasions would go further than raising the profile of researchers. A scientist friend from Nigeria once told me that his inspiration into scientific research were annual events known as the Ahiajoku Lectures, which brought together top scholars of Igbo origin, which were always broadcast live on television and radio with plenty of fanfare.