Are scientists selfish?

Popping into my inbox the other day was a review by the journal, Science Communication about a book Open Science. The authors are Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari (CSIRO publishing).

Another book from Julian Cribb, I thought, how wonderful. But Julian is no one hit wonder, so why was I surprised. The review was positive, even recommending that this book be assigned reading for science communication students. The reviewer was particularly complimentary about the chapter on good science writing calling it a ‘near perfect minicourse.” The review can be read here.

I read another two positive reviews and posed some questions to Julian; based on two concepts that are pivotal to the book: excellent science communication, and open science.

Q> Explain the concept of ‘open science”

A> Open science is knowledge that is freely available to humanity at large. It recognises knowledge as a common human right and a heritage, to be shared for the benefit of all.

Q> If we were to achieve open science do you think it would be read?

A> I would expect that some science would be read by people who would want to use it – farmers, engineers, ecologists, policymakers and the like. However I also believe that science should invest far more in translating its findings into language that ordinary people can use in their daily lives, work and activities. Research tends to see the production of knowledge as the ultimate goal, regardless of whether that knowledge is ever used or not. (and much of it isn’t)

I argue that, as the public has paid for most science, the public is entitled to know about it and be able to use it if they can. Science does not belong to scientists, governments or corporations: it belongs to the people.

Q> Can you give three tips to achieve ‘open science’

A> 1. All scientific research institutes should have a firm policy of sharing the broad outcomes of their work with the public, especially if the public has helped to fund them

2. Scientists should be trained as communicators and, early in their careers, imbued with an ethos that knowledge belongs to society at large and they have a duty to share their findings.

3. The communication of science should be funded proportionately to the conduct of research. For example, every research grant should have a percentage of funds dedicated to sharing the resulting knowledge with a wider audience or public. (At the moment most scientific organisations ignore their obligation to communicate, or do it very half-heartedly. There needs to be a firm communication budget that cannot be side-tracked for other things.)

Q> In the chapter on audience research you take from marketing theory by adding customer value analysis (CVA) and reputational analysis. Can you explain these concepts and how they add to the PR arsenal?

A> 1. CVA involves research into customer attitudes towards new science and technology and trying to understand the value that an end-user attaches to it. For example scientists may think a piece of research very important, but end-users may not – this creates a misfit and usually ends in the knowledge being wasted eg GM food. Where there is a close fit between the science and the end-user, it usually has high uptake and high social, economic and environmental impact: everyone benefits

2. Reputational analysis is how a research institute (or any corporation) can understand how it is perceived by the outside world – positively or negatively. A positive reputation is important to a scientific body because it creates trust in society for that organisation, and hence a greater likelihood its science will be adopted. So there is a very practical end-use, not just a warm feeling.

Q> Can a journalist benefit from reading Open Science? ie is it more geared towards PR professionals?

A> I don’t use the word PR in the context of science communication. In my view that is adding spin to the (usually dubious) marketing claims of a commercial organisation or government, whereas science communication is transmitting the fruits of science truthfully, accurately and understandably to various publics. It does not involve spin.

Yes, journalists can benefit from various chapters. It will help them to understand how scientists think, for example, and that will enable them to obtain more and better stories from science. But it is mainly written for science communicators, who are a separate and honourable profession, but also for interested scientists, science managers and scicomm students.

So if you’re looking for a good book on science communication (written by an Australian and a former president of the Australian Science Communicators) One that explains how to get the message across, after all Julian always does, then grab a copy of the book.

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About Susan Kirk

Susan Kirk is a freelance science journalist, with a degree in journalism and qualifications in horticulture. She has written for many different publications but lately writes extensively for Fairfax media. She wrote a number of the Taste booklets (Global Food and Wine) which showcased Australian produce and producers and even did a stint as a restaurant critique. She loves growing, cooking and consuming food so over the years the interest in ornamental plants turned into an interest in food plants, especially herbs. She is a member of the Media Alliance, and is a member of and the Queensland web editor for the Australian Science Communicators.