University Post
University of Copenhagen
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»Currently, science communication is for idiots who like doing unpaid work«

Research dissemination — Communicating research results to the public is important, but it is not specified in researchers’ contracts, so they are forced to do it in their spare time, three researchers say.

»You should spend 50 per cent of your time on research, 50 per cent on teaching and 50 per cent on admin and science communication.«

This may be an inside joke among researchers, but it reveals how some academic employees perceive the demands that are placed on their time, says Søren Eilers, a mathematics professor at UCPH.

»The university says that research communication to a wide audience is very important, but it is unclear how we should make time to do it. Management does not seem to have a clear strategy, and this leaves it up to the individual researcher to decide what to cut back on: research or teaching.«

Read also: Iran researcher: If I answer journalists’ calls, my career will suffer

Søren Eilers understands the frustration expressed by Rasmus Elling, associate professor in Iranian studies, who said to University Post that sharing expertise with the public should be a quantifiable parameter for researchers, and part of their employment contract.

»The problem is that there are no clearly defined resources allocated to science communication. It would be a good idea to specify how much time I should spend disseminating my research, in per cent,« says Søren Eilers, who won Science magazine’s communication prize in 2013 for a project involving advanced mathematics and Lego bricks.

»Some people think science communication is nothing more than talking about your research at the end of the day. But if you want to do it well and reach as many people as possible, you have to create a new narrative about your research results. It is fun and rewarding, but it takes time, and you can’t just fit it in here and there. Most of the work I won the prize for was done during weekends or vacations, because I felt compelled to do it,« says Søren Eilers.

»My contract will not be renewed«

Science communication being a spare-time activity is something Sabrina Vitting-Seerup, post doc at the Department of Science Education, is very familiar with. She won the World Public Speaking Championship in 2016 and feels that communicating her research results to a wide audience is one of her most important duties. But there is no time allocated to it in her work schedule.

‘We should do it because we feel compelled to’ is a phrase I hear often. So it is clearly not one of my main responsibilities.
Sabrina Vitting-Seerup, postdoc

»The requirements for publishing articles and collaborations, gaining international experience, teaching, supervision, and administration are very time-consuming. Even doing the bare minimum, post docs like me work more than 37 hours a week. On top of that, I am encouraged to do share my results with the public, but it is basically unpaid work,« says  Sabrina Vitting-Seerup.

»‘We should do it because we feel compelled to’ is a phrase I hear often. So it is clearly not one of my main responsibilities. Currently, science communication is for idiots who like doing unpaid work,« she says.

READ ALSO: Prorector: »Of course we hope our researchers want to communicate to a wide audience«

Prorector David Dreyer Lassen says the University sees science communication as one of its most important duties. Is it not therefore one of the official criteria for new hires and promotions?

The Universities Act specifies that Danish universities must engage in research, teaching, and dissemination. But our contracts only state how much time we should spend on teaching, research, and administration.

Professor Marie-Louise Bech Nosch

Took a pay cut to do lectures in her free time

»I know that science communication comes under ‘relevance to society’ in the merit criteria, and that I score very highly in that regard. But because I spend time on science communication, many of my post doc colleagues have published more than I have. So, my contract will not be renewed when it ends next year. The more time I spend on dissemination, the less likely it is that I can keep on working at the University. It is a paradox, especially since I am researching science communication,« says Sabrina Vitting-Seerup.

She has chosen to work part time and take a pay cut to have time to give lectures outside of the university. And it irritates her when the university management says that researchers who want to do more science communication should simply ask their line manager for permission.

»It totally undermines the structural issues. Of course I have asked my line managers, and they are very supportive of me spending time on science communication,« says Sabrina Vitting-Seerup.

»I have asked them why I can’t publish fewer research papers – which nobody reads – and instead spend that time making a handbook for the public, doing interviews, and giving talks. But they cannot give me permission to do that, because there are official requirements we must live up to. And as a temporary staff member, I am competing with other researchers. The head of my department does not decide the competition parameters.«

Sabrina Vitting-Seerup wants universities to change this rigid structure.

»There could be different types of employment contract, for example. Some researchers could have a larger amount of teaching while others could do more communication – and the publishing requirements would be reduced proportionally, of course.«

Two systems contradict each other

Marie-Louise Bech Nosch is a professor at the Saxo Institute and president of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Like Sabrina Vittig-Seerup and Søren Eilers, she supports Rasmus Elling’s call to action.

It is a general problem – and a structural one, she says.

»The Universities Act states that Danish universities must do research, teaching, and dissemination. But our contracts only specify how much time we should spend on teaching, research, and administration. Two systems contradict each other, and no solution has been found yet. This creates a dilemma for those of us that have to do the work,« says Marie-Louise Bech Nosch, who often spends her spare time on science communication.

She echoes Sørens Eilers suggestion to quantify how much time a researcher should spend on dissemination of their results to a wider audience. A reasonable allocation could be ten per cent of researchers’ time, she suggests.

»In the current situation, you might be able to negotiate with your line manager and get this kind of an allocation, but because the university has such tight budgets, I am sure most managers would prefer us to spend ten per cent of our time on teaching instead.«