A German think tank is recommending rewarding scientists who are good at engaging with the public

Scientists who engage with the public deserve not just support and appreciation, but also “remuneration and incentives,” says a position paper from the Siggen Circle.

The paper The Siggen Call for Action – Shaping science communication comes the Siggen Circle, which represents a wide range of people working in universities and research institutes as well as funding bodies, industry and journalists. Scientists and communication managers are both well represented.

They met at the Siggen Estates in Holstein in April under the auspices of the major German publishing house, ZEIT Verlag, and the Alfred Toepfer Foundation to discuss upcoming trends and necessary changes in science communication.

Many people are being left behind

Their action paper says that while some members of the public are actively engaged in debates about science as bloggers, or by writing letters to the press and taking part in action groups, many people are “being left behind”.

This is particularly so where the interests of science and society appear to collide, or when scientific developments “become more and more difficult to understand” or “are not explained in a comprehensible way”.

To tackle this gulf needs action by three main players working together:

• Scientists can and must communicate about science in a credible, authentic and technically accurate way.

• Communicators must help manage science communication and moderate the dialogue process.

• Ideally, journalists should continue their valuable role as advocates for the public.

The decline of traditional media has, however, weakened the journalists’ appraising role, the Siggen paper acknowledges, and “the independent, competent transmission of scientific findings to the broader public is now becoming more challenging.

“For reasons of orientation and quality assurance, science needs science journalism and other, new intermediaries between itself and the public.”

Remuneration as well appreciation

The Siggen paper says: “Scientists who engage in dialogue with the public deserve special support and appreciation. This should also be expressed by objectively rewarding a scientist’s communicative performance in terms of remuneration and incentives.”

As for communication managers, they are the scientists’ “most important partners”, according to the Siggen paper.

“As mediators between the scientific world, the general public and the institute, they must ensure that the highest professional standards are maintained, while also serving on their institution’s decision-making bodies.”

Dr. Elisabeth Hoffmann, Head of Press and Communications at Technische Universität Braunschweig, and Chair of the German Association for Higher Education Communication, said: “These are exciting times for all of us involved with science communication and the Siggen Call for Action is a significant development.

“Much of the public is developing a critical awareness of science and our everyday life is becoming more dependent on science.

Decline of trustworthy journalism

“However, a major problem is the decline of the critical and trustworthy journalism which used to explain and sort information on science.

“It is more and more being replaced by platforms from various target groups concerned with different political issues. This even includes some our own corporate publishing and marketing efforts, which can sometimes overdraw success, results and relevance. As a result we fear a loss of trust in science, similar to the loss of trust in the financial system.

‘German Angst’

“Maybe our ‘German Angst’ can be explained by the fact that we have gone through some spectacular cases of plagiarism, debates on dual-use research and animal experimentation, as well as discussions on the transparency of third-party funds during the last one or two years in Germany.

“Scientists also argue that they are more and more forced to mutate to marketing professionals and their institutions concerns and the academies say that professors should be left alone to do their work instead of having to communicate their institution’s image stuff.

“The Siggen circle accepts that there are some undesirable trends outside, and even inside, scicomm, and argues that one of the crucial tasks facing today’s science communication is to counteract a loss of faith in science by frankly identifying undesirable developments and providing room for self-reflection by actors with varying interests.

“Our premiere assumption in the Siggen Circle is that the public is the main stakeholder and financier of science and education and that the citizen’s requirements, questions and request for participation must be taken seriously. So our goal is a more value-based, transparent, open and self-critical science communication.”