Why communicate science?

In our time of Trumps and Brexits, false knowledge and trolling, the significance of well-communicated research as a balancing power is great. In our research project, we have learned that it is vital to bring out science and research in an understandable manner. How can the efforts and value created by research be appreciated if it is too difficult to understand? Or even worse, only aimed at the academic world?

Our research project, Digital Youth in Media City, has set out to communicate actively on what our research is about. We want to raise new questions and bring out the experiences of young people in how they for example perceive control and local identity in their neighbourhoods and in the metro.

Why is it important to communicate research clearly?  

  1. Giving a voice to the unheard

Young people are rarely heard, for example, in urban planning. Research can gap this informational void and strengthen the voices of the ones whose voices aren’t the loudest. In order to do this, the information must leak from academic journals into practice: daily politics, urban planning and youth work for example. Someone needs to credibly pose the question: are young people really heard in urban planning? Research enforces the message, but the message still needs to be clear.  

  1. Knowledge can solve wicked problems

Decisions should be made based on the best available information. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Issues are often complicated and, as we have seen in recent political turnouts, no one really likes complication. People are looking for something familiar in their surrounding information flows and tend to lean towards a firm answer instead of a complex one (especially during times of supposed uncertainty). But phenomenons are complicated, aren’t they? Yes, all the more reason to communicate better and more.

Knowledge can only solve society’s wicked problems when it is communicated well. Researched knowledge needs its audience and the audience is not always an academic one. Eliminating jargon and taking time to find what is relevant for your audience takes you a long way.

  1. Research is a stabilizing power

Expert knowledge is a balancing force to the nonsense and populism of our time. However, if expert knowledge is not communicated widely and understandably, it is regarded as elitist. According to the newest Tiedebarometri 2016 (report on how people trust and see science and scientific institutions) people’s faith in science and research hasn’t collapsed, unlike the atmosphere of our time might otherwise suggest. Although according to Markku Löytönen, chairman of Tieteen tiedotus ry (an NGO for science communications), we have entered a post-factual era, where expert knowledge is often publicly shrugged at. People’s own beliefs and hear-say are on the rise, as seen globally in anti-vaccination attitudes for example. Researchers can ask themselves, is there something to be blamed in the way expert knowledge is communicated. When asked, people’s trust in science is high but why is there still so much room for nonsense?

  1. New audiences are invited to science and research

Science communications is needed so that researched information doesn’t become a privilege of elites. As we have recently seen in the US elections as well as Brexit, the polarization of groups of people has seemed to have grown and the ability to understand and share realities other than our own has become harder.

Understandable scientific knowledge invites wider audiences to enjoy the fruits of science. And not only lay audiences, but also new generations of researchers. In order to stay alive, science needs to produce new and passionate generations of scientists. The attraction towards science can happen at any age. Our research project invites young people as co-researchers to produce knowledge with us. This is done multi-methodically in co-interviewing, photography and participative ethnography.

And finally, how?

In addition to being a multi-method and multi-disciplinary research project, Digital Youth in Media City has a multi-channel approach to communicating. Our aim is to put as many ladders out there for interested people to be able to climb aboard in some way: as a collaborator, information utilizer or an interested citizen.

It is good to remember that between two small groups of polar opposites of well-aware people and climate change denialists, there is a huge mass of people who want to do the right thing but are busy living their own lives. This is the mass to which the messages should be aimed at.

Social media

We have found it useful to use social media for quick remarks, commentaries and as a platform for our longer blog texts. You can find us on Facebook: Digital Youth in Media City Helsinki as well as Twitter: @DigitalYouthHKI and Instagram: MetroProjectHelsinki. We blog every two weeks on our thoughts and findings on our WordPress webpage.

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Print media

We got a chance to write a column series in Metro newspaper that is distributed free of cost in public transportation. Topics covered the Pokémon Go phenomenon, social control and security and images of suburbs. The comment sections had some lively discussion initiated by lay audiences.

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Face-to-face

We set up meetings with people from different sectors and disciplines to discuss with for example the Youth Department of the City of Helsinki, youth centers and researchers from different fields. We reach out to mixed audiences for example at Science Centre Heureka’s Researchers’ Night where we workshopped together with people to ponder what people want from public transportation in the future.

Workshop to re-imagine the metro of the future at Science Center Heureka
Workshop to re-imagine the metro of the future at Science Center Heureka

Measuring impact?

It is hard to measure the impact science communications has. So far, we are definitely feeling a positive hype around our project. Amongst us researchers and outside, too. When talking about our project to new people, some have already heard of us online and are somewhat familiar to what we are doing. It is also easy to show people our webpage or Facebook account to give a visual aid in explaining what we are doing.

Our experience in science communications is that, well – it can’t hurt anybody. When you have adequate time resources to do it and an excited group, it is fun and fruitful. It is also easy to stay connected and update progress with our researchers in St. Petersburg through our blog and social media. The greatest risk in communications is not being misunderstood, it is not getting your message heard at all.

Author,

Annaliina Niitamo

Doctoral Student, University of Helsinki

Researches communicative cities and participation in the Media and Communication unit, Faculty of Social Sciences

Ex-science communications producer at Kaskas Media

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