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

Research communication — Prorector David Dreyer Lassen says science communication is of the utmost importance for UCPH. Dissemination of research results is a parameter that is considered when employing or promoting researchers.

Make science communication to the public a quantifiable parameter for researchers. This is the call to action by Rasmus Elling, associate professor in Iranian studies. In an interview with the University Post, he said that sharing research results and expertise in the press hampers researchers’ career development, because it is not acknowledged by the university merit system.

READ ALSO: Iran researcher: If I answer journalists’ calls, my career will suffer

Prorector of research at the University of Copenhagen, David Dreyer Lassen welcomes the discussion.

»Science communication is something that UCPH prioritises, and it is something society expects of us. The dissemination of research results to a wide audience is something that we are preoccupied with. Of course, it is something we want our researchers to engage in,« he says.

Rasmus Elling’s appeal comes after countless requests from journalists for him to share his expertise on the protests in Iran during the past few months. He has spent the equivalent of full-time working hours on communicating what he knows, without any concrete way to measure his efforts. This is very different to the time spent on funding applications, teaching, or writing research papers.

Rasmus Elling emphasises that he does not want this to be about him. It is a broader discussion about research duties. He is one of many researchers the University Post has spoken to who want to raise the issue. For example, post doc Sabrina Vittig-Seerup calls science communication a job for »idiots who like unpaid work.«

An official requirement for new hires and promotions

David Dreyer Lassen, what is your response to researchers who feel they are penalised for spending time on disseminating their knowledge, because they spend less time on tasks that can be quantified?

»I think it is a false dichotomy to talk about research and teaching as core duties and science communication as something separate to that. We place a lot of emphasis on communication and see it as one of the university’s main responsibilities. In fact, it is so important that it is an official criterion for new hires and promotions,« says David Dreyer Lassen, with reference to the so-called merit criteria that were implemented at UCPH two years ago.

The merit criteria focus on researchers’ contribution to popular science communication, and frame it as societal impact.

Nonetheless, several researchers we have spoken to still feel it is not a core duty to disseminate research results to a wide audience. What would you say to them?

»I would say that if they feel there is an issue regarding recognition of the science communication they are doing, they should speak to the head of their department and discuss what their expectations are, and how that fits into their career as a whole.«

I think it is a false dichotomy to talk about research and teaching as core duties and science communication as something separate to that.
David Dreyer Lassen, Prorector for Research, UCPH

But surely it is harder to quantify participating in background interviews, news articles, and debate programmes than it is being published in a high-ranking research journal or teaching a certain number of classes?

»It is fair enough if some researchers see it that way, but I am not sure I agree it is harder to quantify. It is quite simple to track what you have done in the press. And we know that it takes longer than the ten minutes that are shown on P1 or Deadline. There is preparation time too. I do acknowledge, however, that impact is hard to measure at the next level of abstraction. It is difficult to quantify the effects of science communication in society or on political decisions, for example.«

No need for a new system

These researchers feel there is a dilemma because they fall behind on their research when they spend time on communication. The time spent on writing an editorial or appearing on a TV show is taken from writing grant applications or peer-reviewed articles.

»It is the classic dilemma. Everyone has to prioritise their time. This also applies to the research projects researchers choose, and how they prepare for teaching. It should be an ongoing discussion between them and their line manager. Often, successful science communication will generate interest from the bodies that give grants and other potential collaboration partners.«

Have you thought of ways to create a system for researchers who work in niche subjects, to support their important communication efforts during periods of high demand?

»I am not sure we need a new system. I understand that niche disciplines may experience busy periods. But that is also the case for larger subjects, because it may be one individual that is in high demand. The more specialised the subject, the more interest there is from the media, whether it is Covid, climate change, or Iran. And the more specialised a researcher is, the harder it is to hire someone to take over while they are away. Sometimes this may mean that they are so busy they have to cut back on teaching, or that they don’t get some of their research done. It has to be an ongoing dialogue between them and their line manager.«

READ ALSO: »Currently, science communication is for idiots who like doing unpaid work«

Despite the new merit criteria, we have spoken to several researchers who feel that media communication is not acknowledged enough by the University. How can you do more to ensure researchers are aware that UCPH prioritises science communication?

I wouldn’t say that researchers need to spend X amount of hours on science communication. I would rather take it ad hoc as part of an open dialogue.

David Dreyer Lassen

»We have to communicate that better. It is reasonable if we have not made that clear. Then we must try to improve that.«

Rasmus Elling told us that in his contract, the number of hours he must spend on teaching is specified, but not how much time he should spend on research and dissemination. Should that be part of researchers’ contracts, if science communication is so integral to your hiring and promotion criteria?

»I wouldn’t say that researchers need to spend a certain amount of hours on science communication. I would rather take it ad hoc as part of an open dialogue, and the requirements may vary for different researchers,« says David Dreyer Lassen, who understands Rasmus Elling’s frustration about humanities subjects being denigrated in the public debate, while he and his colleagues provide valuable insights to the press and authorities.

»I agree that it is a paradox that some politicians berate the humanities and then ask for researchers’ time and expertise. Niche subjects with a small number of students like Iranian studies have fewer staff members. But that does not mean their subject matter is less important. Many humanities researchers are very good communicators and make a real impact on some of society’s greatest challenges.«