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The quest for visibility

Investing in the dissemination of works in the media may help researchers get ahead professionally and be recognized by a larger audience

094_Carreiras_01_247_altaDaniel AlmeidaDespite tensions and a disconnect between the pace of progress and expectations, relations between scientists and journalists have improved over the last two decades in Brazil. Slowly but surely, researchers are recognizing the importance of communicating with larger audiences and they are also realizing that the dissemination of their work in the press may help them progress in their careers by boosting the visibility of their research and prestige among academic colleagues. This was one of the findings of a study published in March 2016 in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. In the publication, journalist Luisa Massarani of the Scientific Communication Studies Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) Museum of Life in Rio de Janeiro, and social scientist Hans Peters, professor at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, gauged the perceptions of Brazilian researchers on the benefits of increasing and improving relations with the press.

Massarani and Peters interviewed 956 researchers from a variety of fields. They found that 66% of the scientists considered their relations with the media helpful, and that 67% believed that the dissemination of their work in the press could increase the influence of their research in the university and elsewhere. They also found that 24% of the researchers they interviewed felt that interaction with journalists could increase opportunities for obtaining new collaborators or even financial support for their projects, in addition to drawing the public’s attention to their field of investigation. As a result, all of them acknowledged that they should interact more with journalists, take the initiative to inform them of the progress of their research and the publication of articles in scientific journals, and make themselves available whenever possible to give interviews and comment on subjects related to their area of investigation.

The results of the study by Massarani and Peters seem to reflect the perception of scientists from other countries. In an article published in 2015 in The Journal of Science Communication, researchers from the University of Twente, the Netherlands, evaluated the perceptions of 21 researchers on the benefits of communicating with larger audiences. The Dutch scientists feel that disseminating their work in the media, among other actions, may help their research studies influence the formulation of public policies. More generally, the researchers said that investing in improving relations with the media would help the public develop a keener understanding of what is involved in generating scientific knowledge; this would allay the fears of some sectors of society and authorities because new results or techniques would come about quickly.

095_Carreiras_01_247_altaDaniel AlmeidaLess sensationalism
For researchers to take advantage of this interaction, first they need to learn to meet the requirements of journalists, recommends Marta Entradas, researcher at the Center for Socioeconomic and Territorial Studies of the Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa in Lisbon, Portugal. Entradas is currently a Marie Curie Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science in England. Her background is in science communication research.

She was assistant professor of science communication and scientific policy at University College in London, England, and educator at the European Network for Science Communication, where scientists are taught to communicate better with audiences outside academia. According to Entradas, one of the key problems in researcher-media relations is the difficulty in obtaining recognition by communication media for topics that are less sensationalistic, yet of interest to society. They deserve coverage as well. “The truth is that that most research conducted at scientific institutions fails to reach the media and society,” Entradas says.

She also says that universities themselves could offer courses that teach researchers how to deal with journalists, keeping them informed about what they are doing. At the same time, she says, it is important for researchers to establish closer relations with communication advisors in their own institutions, since they often interact with journalists and, as a result, they can assist researchers to deal better with the media. In addition, communication advisors have a growing appreciation of direct dialogue with the public through activities they engage in and their own sites and profiles on social networks. “As these relationships mature, it may mean that the importance of science in society is being recognized, and this generates more social, political and financial support,” she says.

The expansion of online media has also opened up new communication avenues for researchers themselves to write about science. It has now become commonplace for scientists to talk about their most recent work using personal profiles on social networks, blogs, or newspaper and magazine columns, as well as open access portals such as ResearchGate and Physicist Paulo Artaxo, professor at the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (IF-USP), has been using this strategy for some time. He currently maintains a page with his articles on ResearchGate. With 507 articles available for download, he has amassed more than 18,000 citations in this database alone, and 26,000 verified readings.

Artaxo considers it almost a duty to disseminate his scientific works as widely as possible, especially since they are financed using public funds. He has had years of experience speaking to journalists and is always willing to grant interviews or comment on topics related to his field. In addition to more than 500 published scientific papers, his interest in socially important issues has made him one of the researchers journalists seek out most to analyze environmental questions related to air pollution or climate change. For Artaxo, even though they work using different rules and at different paces, scientists and journalists need a more intense and mature dialogue, so that scientific knowledge reaches the people in a more fluid and complete manner. “The greater the impact of a given scientific work on society, the more widely known the author becomes – by the public as well as by one’s colleagues in academia,” Artaxo says. Astronomer and astrophysicist Augusto Damineli of the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of USP (IAG), echoes that thought: “If the public had a positive perception of the work of scientists, we would have more political and financial support for scientific research in Brazil.” According to him, dissemination of his research in the press and articles that he wrote in various media channels has made his work resonate more, and this has included encouraging some young people to major in astronomy. According to Luisa Massarani, this change in perception by scientists in Brazil and Europe is the result of efforts by the scientific community to expand the dissemination of science. One example of this is the 1985 publication, by the Royal Society (British academy of science) in London, of one of the first documents that asked scientists to communicate more and better with the press. “In Brazil, the work of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) has been important for publicizing science and technology topics in Brazil by establishing a Deliberative Committee for Scientific Communication and a tab in the Lattes resume [an online database of researcher resumes maintained by the CNPq] that provides visibility for scientific communication work done by scientists themselves,” he says.