Communication gives society access to outcomes of publicly funded research
Research funding agencies should not confine themselves to conventional means of communication if they want to reach the younger generation, says ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.
By Karina Toledo | Agência FAPESP – The importance of finding new ways to demonstrate the impact of publicly funded research to society was one of the main topics discussed at the 8th Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC), which ended this Friday (May 3, 2019) in São Paulo, Brazil.
“The GRC encompasses 52 research funding agencies worldwide and they all agree on the need for good evaluation methods and ways of demonstrating impact. This shows the subject concerns all countries and isn’t just an issue for Brazil. Taxpayers the world over want to see the results of publicly funded research,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director.
According to Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Board of Trustees and Executive Board assign great importance to the pursuit of strategies for engaging with different stakeholder groups. “We have Pesquisa FAPESP, a monthly magazine, something few agencies have anywhere in the world, and Agência FAPESP, a daily newsletter describing the results of funded research projects, with more than 100,000 subscribers to the Portuguese-language version. Versions in English and Spanish are sent every week to interested parties abroad, helping FAPESP create interactions around the world,” he said.
To engage with policymakers, Brito Cruz continued, FAPESP holds monthly symposiums at the São Paulo State Legislative Assembly (ALESP) in partnership with Instituto do Legislativo Paulista (ILP), ALESP’s educational institute. “We also reach out to the general public through TV programs produced in partnership with Folha de S. Paulo, a leading daily broadsheet, and Futura, a free-to-air educational TV channel,” he said.
TV programs are also part of the strategy used by Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). “In addition, we make documentaries and organize traveling science fairs that visit small towns. This is important to attract students to a career in science,” said Jorge Tezon, a director of CONICET.
The European Research Council (ERC), which funds research throughout the European Union, has opted for an ambitious strategy to engage with youngsters, launching a series of webcomics produced in partnership by artists and researchers. “They may be about a specific project or a knowledge area. When we said we’d fund this initiative and issued a call for proposals, many people didn’t take it seriously,” said ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (photo).
For Bourguignon, funders and scientists cannot afford to confine dissemination activities to conventional media if they want to reach the younger generation. “They don’t read newspapers but they make intensive use of social media and the internet. We have to be creative and innovative,” he said.
Peter Strohschneider, President of the German Research Foundation (DFG), explained that the DFG, which is Germany’s leading research funder, invests in science fairs that visit various universities. “We have one on microbiology that’s been to more than 20 locations across Germany,” he said. “We also hold public talks featuring researchers not only in Germany but also in countries with which we have collaborations, including Brazil.”
For Strohschneider, however, science dissemination by funding agencies is no substitute for the crucial role of scientific journalism, which in recent years has been hard hit by the crisis in print media and the rise of authoritarianism in many countries.
“Modern liberal societies are experiencing a structural crisis,” he said. “Anti-liberal and authoritarian movements are winning elections in quite a few countries. They attack the judiciary, the media, and the science system because modern societies institutionalize their official discourse through these three social sectors.”
Strohschneider stressed that scientific journalism should be distinguished from the scientific dissemination done by funding agencies. “They’re both important, but science dissemination is self-observation by science about itself. Scientific journalism, on the other hand, is an outsider’s gaze, a different point of view,” he said.
To stimulate this professional activity, which in his view is “under strong pressure” at present, DFG awards prizes and funds workshops and scientific journalism networks.
Another point about which there was a consensus among all the agencies represented at the meeting, according to Brito Cruz, was that assessing the impact of research projects is no easy task. One of the examples mentioned at the meeting was Google.
“The two founders were awarded grants by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1994, under a program to support the creation of digital libraries and book classification methods. In 1998 they developed the algorithm that ranks web pages. In 1999 they tried to sell the company for U$1 million, but no one was interested. They lowered the price to US$700,000, and even so no one came forward. If we were to assess the impact of Google at that time, we would deem it a failure. Today it’s worth U$800 million,” Strohschneider said.
“There are cases in which you have to wait many years to discover the true impact of research, making demonstration of its importance to society even more difficult.”
Photo credit: Piu Dip / Agência FAPESP