"Science communication serves to lobby the public"

Communication expert Hanna Wick is the new Agora Evaluation Panel president, succeeding Mike Schäfer.

Hanna Wick, on 1 September you took office as president of the Agora Evaluation Panel. What appeals to you especially about this job?

Agora is a unique scheme for researchers in Switzerland. Through Agora, the SNSF offers researchers the supreme luxury of experimenting with creative and unconventional methods of communication and finding ways of entering into dialogue with society. If I were a researcher, I wouldn’t hesitate to submit an application and take advantage of this opportunity that we offer. I’m not a researcher myself. But as a former science journalist I have the expertise required to judge whether an idea will work out or not. It’s very exciting for me to be involved in this endeavour.

Your experience as a science journalist and as a prospective math and physics teacher makes you well qualified to communicate complex topics to a lay audience. How do you engage an audience that is far removed from research, for example for less popular topics in mathematics or physics?

Mathematics and physics play a major role in everyday life. For example, if someone does research on decommissioning nuclear power plants, that’s a topic that concerns and interests many people. As a theoretical solid-state physicist, I can do research on coatings for exotic materials, for example, and present my work to the public, even if the topic might seem at first to interest only a few. An exhibition on spectacular breakthroughs in materials science and on cutting-edge materials would certainly capture the public’s imagination. However, it requires effort and the support of people who know how to communicate science. These people do not necessarily have to be media professionals. Museum curators or librarians also make good collaborators, who may reveal surprising perspectives on a researcher’s work.

A recent report by the Swiss expert group Communicating Sciences and Arts in the Times of Digital Media (link at the end of the text) calls for scientists to actively engage with the general public about their research results. The SNSF is also pursuing this goal through Agora.

Yes, and it’s a very important goal. Researchers who work on Agora projects learn a lot about communication. When they give interviews later on, they have a much better idea of what to pay attention to and how to express themselves in a way people can understand. They are also less apprehensive about outsiders asking critical questions. One aspect of Agora is that research teams are exposed to public opinion and, through contact with the public, learn which topics are of particular concern. Within the framework of an Agora project, criticism and opposition can still be controlled to some extent, for example by organizing a panel discussion and determining who will take part in it. When dealing with the media, that’s no longer possible. But Agora provides good preparation.

Leading an Agora project can also be a first step into public relations work, testing the waters, so to speak, to see whether communication might be a plausible future career choice. Often those who work on our projects are post-doctoral fellows or PhD candidates, rather than individuals who lead the overall effort in a research project.

Within the scientific community, researchers discuss and debate at length based on facts. Inaccurate statements are immediately questioned by scientific peers. This practice often stands in the way of dialogue with the general public, because it is not possible to go into as much detail with them. Does Agora help researchers learn to deal with this dichotomy?

For many researchers it is indeed an obstacle, because cutting out the detail doesn’t fit with their scientific values. However, there are renowned experts in all disciplines who enjoy a high reputation among researchers and who can express themselves in a very confident and easily understandable way. Physicist Lisa Randall and biologist and Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna are good examples for this. It often helps to seek out such experts and to hold them up as models. These people serve to lobby the public for their fields, as it were, which is just as important as lobbying within their own ranks.

I believe that researchers have a duty to be able to express themselves in such a way that taxpayers understand what is at stake. After all, the public help to finance research. So scientists do have some form of accountability.

Anyone who submits a proposal to Agora has already cleared the first hurdle. But how do you reach researchers who have no desire to be in the public eye?

One possibility is to offer courses or coaching. At the Agora Forum, for example, which takes place this weekend, we are offering lectures and workshops on various communication formats. We have invited experts from the communication sector. But I could also imagine a kind of ambassador programme, for instance, where researchers who have experience with successful Agora communication projects report on them at panels or scientific conferences.

The current Agora call for proposals closes on 15 October. What ideas would be most welcome?

An Agora project must always focus on an important topic. Ultimately, a project should find an audience, which means it has to be relevant. Relevance isn’t necessarily political; it could also be social, economic or emotional. The panel is very strict on this point. I also think it is good when Agora projects show the general public how research is done. In the end, the public should have a better understanding of scientific methodology. I get the feeling that many people are not entirely clear about what to expect from science. Through dialogue, researchers can show what they are thinking about and how scientific consensus is built. That also helps in the fight against disinformation.

We award the best projects the Optimus Agora Prize. The prize-winners show very clearly how original and creative science communication works.

About Hanna Wick:

For over 15 years, physicist and journalist Hanna Wick worked as a science editor and writer for the NZZ, Swiss radio SRF and Swiss television. In 2014, Wick received the Science Journalist of the Year award. In 2019, she started a degree at the University of Zurich to become an upper secondary school teacher for mathematics and physics. Wick has been a member of the Agora Evaluation Panel since 2020; she became its chair on 1 September 2021.