Bridge the gap between science and society

Published on
April 16, 2018

Scientists are expected to have up-to-date knowledge. However, using facts in a discussion suppresses emotional arguments, because feelings are subjective, and sometimes difficult to support. This creates a lack of understanding between science and society. These are words of Noëlle Aarts, Professor of Socio-Ecological Interactions at Radboud University Nijmegen. She will be the keynote speaker at the professional conference for scientific communication on Monday 16 April.

During the conference, Aarts will delve into the causes of misunderstandings between scientists and society as well as how to prevent them. She has three tips for scientists who have something to tell the world.

Involve experts

'Non-scientists can have great ideas about research. A good example is a sounding board, which is a group of people who may not do research themselves, but are involved with the topic through their specific positions or areas of expertise. For instance, someone from animal protection could be brought in during research into the consequences of buying a dog without thinking it through, but also a psychologist who understands decision-making processes. By involving a panel like this, you make science accessible for society and prevent scientists from spending years looking for results which still turn out to be inconclusive.'

Reach your target audience

‘If you want your research to attract the attention of the people to whom it is important, then you have to seek out the communication channels they use, such as social media and journals.

A newspaper wants something current and to the point, preferably on a loaded topic
Noëlle Aarts

‘Traditional media are more difficult to access, because you have to comply with the rules in place for that medium: a newspaper wants something current and to the point, preferably on a loaded topic. That is difficult for most scientists, because they do not want to use one-liners or simplifications. They are cautious and make nuanced statements.

‘Generating public interest is not something everyone can do; you have to enjoy it. At an institute, science information officers and communication consultants can provide support.’

Make your research appealing

‘No matter what, the story has to be appealing. An article drowning in jargon or an overly nuanced story on the radio is sure to drive away the audience. It is much more interesting to listen to a scientist’s critical musings on complex social topics such as climate change, food, and health: what are the underlying assumptions? Are they true? What are the underlying norms? Scientists can show their critical approach in public more often in order to reach society.’