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Sense About Science: workshop for early career researchers

In early March, I found myself on the Vrije Universiteit Brussel campus on a rainy day, sitting in a room surrounded by other early career researchers (ECRs) from various European institutions, brought together to attend the Standing Up for Science workshop hosted by Sense about Science, an organisation which provides many resources to help scientists disseminate their research. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I was surrounded by a sea of chemists, biologists, engineers; doctoral students and recent graduates. 





There I sat: nearly the only one in the audience representing the social sciences. I recently received my M.A. in Migration and Intercultural Relations from the Erasmus Mundus programme EMMIR. Migration can arguably be called one of the most polarising topics of our times, and before the workshop I would never have presumed to be an expert on the topic. But that was a lesson I’d soon learn. Many people often face “imposter syndrome” when it comes to feeling like an expert on their topic, but it’s still our duty to share our research with a wider audience outside the academic bubble. How to combat that feeling, to stand up for science, and to disseminate our findings was at the core of the workshop. To do this, here are the key takeaways I got from all the three panels of the workshop.


1. The more voices, the better the debate

The three scientists at the workshop’s first panel all had different ways of getting involved with science communication: starting a blog about why scientists perform animal testing; getting featured on the local news for their strange approach to their research; for speaking out against a well-known academic’s controversial statements at a conference. Regardless of their first point-of-contact into the world of #SciComms, the common denominator was that they all believe that it’s our duty as scientists to share our research. In the end, they argued, you may feel like you have a greater impact on your field than ever before. 


Not only can our fields benefit from hearing about the valuable work that we are doing, but the effects go both ways: scientists also benefit from contributing to and listening to public debates surrounding their topic of research. Opening ourselves up to questions, criticisms, and diverse, multidisciplinary opinions can only give us more perspective. 


2. Tear down that wall (between scientists and policymakers)! 

Scientists often think that there’s a wall between policymakers and themselves, and in reality… there is. For better or for worse, scientists don’t always have the direct ear of policymakers. This was something that was confirmed in the second panel at the workshop: there is a barrier between those who collect evidence and those who give advice on policy, but it is not unscalable—if you know the right methods. 


3. Amplify your voice: What policymakers are looking for

The best way to get your voice heard by policymakers is to join a group of like-minded scientists. Many voices arguing for the same thing are stronger (and louder!) than one. Another option would be to get involved with services such as the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), an intermediary between the European Commission and scientists. The SAM solicits scientists from various fields to answer to the specific knowledge gaps for policymakers. The scientists then present the facts. Not recommendations, not advice; just the facts. SAM then analyses the findings through the frame of policy and presents the advice to the European Commission.


4. Policy is a fast-paced world. Science, not so much. 

The European Commission, for example, needs to write up new policies fast, and scientists need as much time as possible to ask the questions, conduct the research, analyse the data, formulate conclusions, and write everything up. There’s a constant negotiation happening between the policy world and the research world. Often, researchers can end up with some incredible, important results, but timing might not allow for real substantial effects to take place right away. However, zero impact at the start doesn’t mean zero impact ever. Keep sharing your research. Get involved with other scientists to amplify your voice in order to catch the attention of policymakers working with the topics important to you.


5. How to get it right in the time of clickbait headlines: What journalists are looking for from researchers 

In a perfect world, journalists would have as much time as they need to understand your research perfectly, then formulate it in a clear and coherent way. This isn’t always possible. The first step you can take to helping journalists get the science right is to simplify it before presenting it to them: write it down in bullet points, give headline suggestions, don’t use niche jargon. The demand for sensationalised news is there. What we, as scientists, can do is to share the most interesting and important parts of our research in a simple way.


As ECRs, I can imagine that a lot of us would be quite nervous speaking to the media about our research or fields. However, when it comes to presenting our knowledge to a lay audience, we’re actually quite the experts. Own your space.


To summarise the day in one sentence: more research should be shared with a broader audience. My biggest takeaway from this workshop was that the role of ERCs in producing knowledge and disseminating is just as important as that of highly accomplished researchers. Throughout the day, we learned that it’s not only our duty to share our findings, but it can also help us as well. We received tips from policymakers and journalists on what they’re looking for, but we also expanded our concept of a network and came up with ideas of whom to share our science with. We tapped into our own expertise, and gained the confidence to share it with the world. 


My advice for other ERCs is to take a step back, think about your important contributions to the academic world, and how that can translate to important contributions to a broader audience. Translate your findings into impact now—by lending your voice to public discussions. 


Originally written for Wiley. To be published soon, link will be shared here.



© 2020 by Gabriella Mikiewicz

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