The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

Feedback from SciCOM 100 Conference:

“Talk about your research, or there won’t be a next generation of researchers”

  • June 2019
  • Tags Food for Thought, Research

By Amanda Matthee

15 minutes to read


One of the themes explored at the 2018 SciCOM 100 Conference in Stellenbosch was the importance of making science accessible to a wider audience – with science communication specialists seen as bridge builders between scientists and the public. As one speaker boldly stated: “If we do not make science accessible to a wider audience, we won’t have a next generation of scientists.” Below are some of the take-outs from SciCOM 100 calling for closer collaboration between scientists and society – which equally applies to researchers in a business school context.


Sharing research in a changing world

“The nature of engagement between science and society must change.” This message was conveyed by various SciCOM 100 speakers. Communicating your work as a scientist (or researcher) is about more than “getting your name out there”. This sharing of information with society is also about creating awareness of an issue, informing policy decisions, and changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. This speaks to the societal impact of research. Various speakers used the term engaged science.


One of the problems with research worldwide is that “the stories do not get told”. In addition, research outcomes need to be translated into recommendations for governments, institutes and individual researchers. Consolidation and recommendations are regarded as the DNA of responsible research and innovation (RRI). Access to research outcomes is therefore crucial, also to determine the societal impact of research.


In addition, the landscape in which researchers operate is changing as a result of the post-truth world, open-access science platforms, the need to involve society (engaged science), the changing news ecosystem, social media, and the shrinking attention span of potential audiences. Also, there is the need to mainstream indigenous knowledge systems, to adopt entrepreneurial attitudes towards finding research budgets, to realise that simply publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is no longer enough, and to incorporate new ways of tracking the spread and use of science information apart from citations.


At SciCOM 100, Beverley Damonse from the National Research Foundation talked about the five “enormous transformations” that changed the world of science communication: the new knowledge revolution, big data and the internet explosion, social connectivity, evolutionary programming, and artificial intelligence.


George Claassen from the Centre for Science & Technology Mass Communication (CENSCOM), Department of Journalism, Stellenbosch University, talked about the role of scientists in utilising social media to counter alternative facts in science. Undoubtedly, it is beneficial for scientists and institutions to have an online social media presence. Here, Twitter can foster better public engagement with science, “partly by relaying science to a more diverse audience.” Referring to Emily Bell’s article titled “Facebook is eating the world” (Columbia Journalism Review, 2016), Claassen said:

  • Firstly, traditional news publishers have lost control over distribution of news. Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.
  • Secondly, this is increasing the power of social media companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and even second-order companies such as Twitter and Snapchat as these companies have become extremely powerful in terms of controlling who publishes what to whom, and how that publication is monetised.


Another speaker, Prof Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked about communicating science in polarised environments. According to him, science communication is “the process by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community” – and vice versa. Scheufele also said that “Perhaps a second development-focused set of skills is required to communicate with audiences that have an oppositional perspective”. Here, he referred to, among others, scientists speaking in their mother tongue, or scientists who want to understand local issues and be accepted as part of a local community.


Getting science into society

Various speakers at SciCOM 100 used the term engaged science. Beverley Damonse from the National Research Foundation talked about the development of a knowledge society to build “an informed, critical and socially aware citizenry”. Research institutions should have a science engagement strategy (SES) to:

  • Popularise science, engineering, technology and innovation as attractive, relevant and accessible in order to enhance scientific literacy and awaken interest in relevant careers
  • Develop a critical public that actively participates in the national discourse of science and technology to the benefit of society
  • Profile South African science and science achievements domestically and internationally, demonstrating their contribution to national development and global science, thereby enhancing its public standing


According to Damonse, the objectives of community engagement research are to:

  • Sharpen and mainstream the higher education sector’s response to community engagement as a third pillar of academic activity
  • Facilitate the development of robust theoretical and conceptual positions on community engagement in the South African context
  • Create new forms of knowledge in the area
  • Develop human capacity in the field of community engagement.


Public engagement is therefore crucial for the future of research as this helps to:

  • Build trust in government and public institutions, which means increasing openness and transparency in decision-making processes
  • Strengthen democracy, providing new ways in which citizens can engage in and influence political and policy decisions
  • Build skills and enthusiasm for active citizenship, including the willingness and confidence to take part in dialogue
  • Build social cohesion and social capital.


Damonse said that a science-engaged knowledge society will help to build critical publics, reach non-traditional stakeholders, and build science communication infrastructure (which includes the use of indigenous knowledge systems).


Elizabeth Rasekoala, President of African Gong, advocated for a “societal literacy” approach to scientific public engagement in Africa, in a two-way dynamic that highlights the role of scientists. She said, “Ultimately, the ideal democracy is one in which the voters are armed with the most objective information”. African Gong is the Pan-African network for the Popularization of Technology and Science Communication.


Martin Carrier from the University of Bielefeld in Germany talked about “socially beneficial and socially welcomed research”, referring to responsible research and innovation (RRI). Research is to be done in interaction with society and for the benefit of society.


SciCOM 100 speaker Shirona Patel from the University of Witwatersrand said scientists are under pressure from funders, the state and other societal actors to make knowledge accessible and visible in the public sphere. Scientists are called upon to “demonstrate the impact of their work”. Importantly, scientists can no longer solely work with the traditional media to share new knowledge.


Janice Limson from Rhodes University talked about the co-creation of technology and innovation with communities, mentioning models and benefits in higher education. Some of her practical ideas included giving students (and academics) training in making videos, and hosting “Speed-meet a scientist” sessions where postgraduate students meet with school learners for 10 minutes and where the students talk about their Master’s or PhD research with the learners.


Coping with the changing media landscape

SciCOM 100 speaker Shirona Patel from the University of Witwatersrand talked about how media technologies have changed science communication in a university context. To start with, the South African print media is under severe economic strain due to the advent of digital technologies and platforms, changing patterns of media consumption, new business models, the “decimation” of newsrooms, and the decline in the number of specialist journalists. She said South African science journalism is under threat as a result of the following:

  • The post-truth environment
  • The quantity and quality of science reporting, which is found to be inconsistent, unstructured and relegated at the expense of more newsworthy genres like politics and economics
  • The declining number of specialist science journalists in the traditional media
  • Journalists writing across titles and platforms to feed the 24-hour online news cycle.


According to Patel, the decline in science journalism and science content is forcing scientists to “grow their own communities, using social media”, and to make use of science communicators.


Zamuxolo Matiwana from the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement talked about how scientists can use social media to democratise science in South Africa. He mentioned that the internet and social media, and Twitter in particular, are making it easier for scientists to communicate science directly to their audiences. Researchers no longer only have to rely on journalists to interpret scientific information for non-scientists in society. In addition, social media is changing the way people are consuming science information and creates an opportunity for engagement between non-scientists and scientists. The participation of non-scientists in a dialogue with scientists is one of the important tenets of democratising science.


Enter the science communicators

One of the SciCOM 100 speakers mentioned that researchers’ participation in public engagement in South Africa is very low. Based on various studies, this engagement was thought to be 82% in the UK, 49% in France and only 1% in South Africa. This lack of engagement with society can partly be ascribed to time pressure, stress, too little capacity, and a lack of funding, communication skills and recognition on the researcher’s side.


Scientists should therefore communicate their work to “serve society, show their love of science and education, create an informed public, influence policy, serve as role models, and make science visible”.


Science communicators help to make research accessible by extracting the key findings and writing narrative articles based on the original research, posting on social media, making videos, and more. This has even led to the institution of research chairs in science communication.


In this regard, Dr Marina Joubert from Stellenbosch University referred to institutional science communication specialists as bridge builders.


Mathilde van der Merwe from the University of Cape Town talked about why it is important for early career researchers to engage with the public, saying that “less than 1% of scientists engage with the public because of a lack of training, experience or rewards. There is not much training for young scientists.” Funders now often require public engagement – not as a “fluffy afterthought” but as an integral part of research. According to her, science communication helps to build public trust.


The need to measure and evaluate science communication

Various speakers referred to the need for researchers to evaluate their communication to the public in order to:

  • Build a better understanding of their visiting publics (e.g. their needs, interests, motivations, language)
  • Inform their plans, and predict which engagement or learning methods and content will be most effective
  • Know whether they have achieved their objectives (and why, or why not)
  • Redesign their approach to be even more effective in future.


An interesting case study was that of the SKA’s struggle with anti-science advocacy groups, as shared by Dr Anton Binneman from the Square Kilometre Array (MeerKAT) radio telescope project. Starting almost two years in advance, the SKA communicated the benefits and societal impact of SKA to stakeholder groups on various platforms. But then they encountered social media campaigns driven by groups opposed to the SKA project. To gain a better understanding of the anti-SKA campaigns, they analysed all Facebook posts and interactions for 12 months. Using critical discourse analysis, this allowed the SKA’s communication team to identify the overarching themes and narratives of the anti-SKA groupings and to angle their communication efforts accordingly.


Dr Rodrigo Costas from the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University talked about social media metrics and altmetrics (the simple definition of which is “any metric around research products, except citations”) and the identification of “communities of attention” as “downloads are not a measure of engagement”. Altmetrics looks at, among others, blogs, Facebook posts, Google+ posts and tweets.


Adopting a science engagement strategy

Various SciCOM 100 speakers talked about the importance for institutions to adopt a science engagement strategy (SES) and to establish best practices for communication as the leading driver of science engagement. In this context, science communication was defined as “Public communication of science-related topics to non-experts by imparting or exchanging information by speaking, writing or using any other medium”.

In many cases, this may have to include a Social Media 101 course for academics!


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