Social media has shaken the foundations of what information reaches who and how to the point that governments and traditional media are no longer the so-called “gatekeepers” of truth, the unquestioned authorities of right and wrong. This has widespread implications on science and its perception in society today. Under much greater scrutiny, research integrity is more important than ever!
Media democratisation is a coup for free speech advocates – rallying voices behind major issues, from the #metoo movement to climate action – but it poses a huge challenge to a scientific community whose existence has been forged out of controlled or evidence-based information flow.
As all Euraxess Worldwide (EWW) members are aware, research is the systematic study – thinking, observing, experimenting – aimed at increasing our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It is often a collective endeavour drawing on the work of other researchers, seeking to produce evidence and information that is free from ideological, economic or political interests.
That is the core rationale behind the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, as published by the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA), which underlines the research community’s responsibility to: “Formulate the principles of research, to define the criteria for proper research behaviour, to maximise the quality and robustness of research, and to respond adequately to threats to, or violations of, research integrity.”
The Code is effectively a “framework for self-regulation” outlining science’s professional, legal and ethical responsibilities under four headline ‘good practices’:
My truth is better than your fact!
Social media is changing not only the way people communicate, but also the way society sees itself, who it listens to, what ideas are formulated and which ones receive elevated status … becoming “personal truths”.
For health authorities trying to combat a potentially lethal disease or climate scientists trying to present hard facts about global warming, alternative narratives about vaccines or climate change, coupled with an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have made it “painfully clear that we need to become more adept at communicating science within society”, notes ALLEA in an interview with Professor Massimiano Bucchi (see our side story).
Digital disruptors in the 21st century have effectively turned the way we are governed on its head, suggests Taylor Owen of the University of British Columbia, Canada, in a weforum blog. He says democratic nation states and the media largely coexisted within a “mutually beneficial information ecosystem” for much of the previous century. With just a few information “gatekeepers and captive audiences”, communication was more concentrated, and so too the power (of authority) that it could engender.
“This largely symbiotic relationship has been radically disrupted by the concurrent rise of digital technology and the social media ecosystem that it enabled,” Mr Owen notes. “Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in the world of international affairs and conflict, where the rise of digitally native international actors has challenged the state’s dominance.”
Science policy is part progenitor, part co-creator of the strong relationship forged over centuries between scientific authority and political leadership. By tackling science disinformation, the research community plays an important role in addressing, maintaining and building society’s trust in a fact-based world and in the authorities whose job is to protect and serve that world.
Euraxess Worldwide functions as a networking platform for mobile researchers but also a reliable source of information and ideas on research and innovation jobs, funding and hosting opportunities in Europe and around the world. As such, EWW members are encouraged to uphold the research integrity and open access principles, to communicate their findings with a view to promoting even greater, transparency, accountability and FAIRness (see EWW feature ‘Where open science meets the world of learning').
We provide a reminder of some communication golden rules to help EWW communicators deal with this huge task.
Seven golden rules of science comms
If ever there was a time for good science communication it is now, according to
He is also a strong advocate for attitude changes and better training in science comms overall to tackle public scepticism, scientists’ reluctance to ‘popularise’ their work, and policy makers misunderstanding of their roles.
“Unfortunately, a representation of the public as hostile, sceptical and ignorant is still widespread among policy makers and experts, supporting a paternalistic and authoritarian vision of science communication and of science in society,” he tells ALLEA’s editorial team.
The best way to tackle fake news is to refute it with hard facts. Failure to do that on all levels and through all possible channels – mainstream and social media but also in art and daily interaction – can lead to the problems science faces with alternate views of Covid and the safety and utility of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and many preventable diseases.
“While disinformation strategies are intoxicating public discourses in many fields, science disinformation is particularly dangerous to democratic governance and society at large,” notes ALLEA about its recent discussion paper entitled Fact or fake? Tackling science disinformation.
Indeed, a communication chasm easily forms when insufficient effort is put into making science easier for different audiences to comprehend, and opening up to more spontaneous and fun forms of engagement, such as science cafés, comedy, popular music and films.
“I am not sure misinformation is the main challenge,” Prof. Bucchi tells the ALLEA team, “at least in the narrow way in which it is usually defined through terms like ‘fake news’.” The bigger and broader challenge, he explains, is the quality of science communication and finding ways to reward those prepared to challenge the status quo.
The EU is fully aware of this challenge and has long sought to promote science communication, both as a condition for awarding funding through its research framework programmes; the latest being Horizon Europe which stipulates that “beneficiaries must carry out activities to increase the impact of their results”. That effectively means better ‘science communication’. On the same page describing this requirement, the European Commission’s Research Executive Agency lists various free services offered to enable open science communication, what it calls “exploitation and dissemination”.
Science communication has been on the EU’s radar since it started a dedicated award under the auspices of the ‘Descartes Prize’ back in 2004, which encouraged bold science storytelling. A more recent addition to this landscape is the European Research Council (ERC) which introduced its own science communication prize called the
“Engagement is a two-way process, involving interaction and mutual understanding for mutual benefit,” the ERC explains. It gives out three prizes worth EUR 10,000 each to grantees who demonstrate novel ways to involve (citizen science), inspire (public outreach), and influence (media and policy).