Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

In this interview Teresa Völker speaks with Dr. Volker Meyer-Guckel about challenges and possible futures of science communication.

Science communication is often considered equal with public relations or media coverage. However, the phenomenon is significantly more complex, and its most important aspects are not given enough attention. For instance, science includes how science can not only communicate but also interact with societal groups, and the potential impacts this can have on the perception of research in the public eye. Dr. Volker Meyer-Guckel, Chair of the Donors’ Association, explained in an interview with “Elephant in the Lab” why our understanding is outdated and how effective science communication can be achieved.

What is the goal of science communication for you? What can science communication achieve?

The goals of science communication should evolve in alignment with how science, communication, and society are changing; it cannot be reduced to a single factor. Currently, about 90 percent of science communication is rather irrelevant to society and primarily serves as self-promotion for research institutions or is a form of political lobbying on its own behalf. It is primarily concerned with presenting research institutions and unilaterally mediatizing research results. This form is insufficient, yet it consumes many resources. Science communication becomes intriguing when science interacts with society. Peter Weingart, a renowned researcher in this field, once wrote, ‘The alleged gap between science and society is a political construct.’ I would like to question this thesis, suggesting that there is no gap.

To what extent?

First and foremost, it can be noted that many of the current societal debates about how we should live, how we should conduct our economy, how we should communicate, and what we should fear are significantly influenced by science. There are indeed various positions and debates within and outside of science, to say the least. However, there are also other reference points, communication logics, and value systems. Addressing this would be a major task for science communication. But there’s more to it: when life sciences deeply interfere with the genetic codes of living organisms, when researcher-created artificial intelligence fundamentally changes the way we communicate, exchange knowledge, and produce insights, or when epidemiologists, armed with both secure knowledge and uncertain findings, make decisions that touch upon societal principles of freedom, one cannot, in my opinion, retreat and say that the societal relevance of the state of scientific debates is solely the realm of politics. We are part of this space; scientific discourse spaces are increasingly intertwined with political and societal ones. Here, there is a need for many more bridges to be built, bridges that are systematically thought out and not left to the media behavior of individual scientists or institutions – a vast field for science communication that is hardly explored.

What role does the attention economy play in this, meaning the fact that attention is a scarce resource? Which research findings actually gain access to public and political debates?

In a so-called “attention economy”, research generally has little success chances because in order to grasp attention traditional triggers are required such as sensation, morality, and outrage. However, there are areas where voices from the scientific community are expected, especially in societal conflicts and transformation processes fueled by specific research findings but leading to ethical, economic, or social controversies. For me, this is the truly interesting and largely unexplored space for science communication. There is not enough understanding of how science operates in these spaces, how it should operate, and how it changes itself and society as a result. Much more attention should be paid to this, both within the scientific community and in the realm of science communication and science funding. Furthermore, there is a need for spaces where researchers with experience in science communication can exchange their insights with those actively engaging in societal debates.

Who is THE science that communicates?

A good question. There is, of course, no single science, but rather different disciplines and perspectives on societal challenges, phenomena, and issues. A common problem with scientific policy advice is that it often represents only a small spectrum of the available expertise. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Leopoldina issued a recommendation regarding school closures, which was based on scientific expertise but authored by a relatively small number of researchers and disciplines. Knowledge holders outside the academic community were not involved in these recommendations at all, even though it would have been crucial to include the expertise of as many as possible.

When it comes to science communication, it’s important to consider and make transparent the disciplinary differences. The culture of communication in the social sciences is undoubtedly different from that in the natural sciences, and this, in turn, influences how communication and collaboration with society are conducted. For me, a central task of science communication is to highlight and make understandable the cultural differences among disciplines for society.

However, it must be acknowledged that the scientific discourse and publication space are primarily characterized by self-referentiality and (hyper) specialization. Practical knowledge or solutions to societal challenges are rarely generated or enjoy a lower status in the academic reputation system. As long as this is the case, we will not make significant progress in science communication. On the contrary, it will remain the responsibility of research institutions’ communication departments, rather than becoming an integral part of the tasks of researchers and disciplines.

What are the limits of science communication? What can and should science accomplish in communication, and where does competence reach its limits?

I am convinced that science has drawn its boundaries too narrowly thus far. My plea would be to explore these boundaries beyond fundamental debates and not only in the realm of communication but also in the concrete transformation spaces within society. This happens far too rarely, primarily because there are currently not enough resources for it. When I mention “transformation spaces,” I’m referring, for instance, to real-world laboratories involving many stakeholders, where the role of science can be tested beyond traditional research and education, showcasing what it can achieve, where it faces limits, and how it can potentially evolve in such situations. With these experiences, we could collaboratively work on “expectation management” with society. The government increasingly hopes that social transformation processes can automatically succeed through the involvement of science – this is, of course, a misconception. In these cases, politics and society sometimes place demands on science that it cannot fulfill, and it’s precisely these boundaries that should be empirically tested, without excluding anything from the outset, for example, out of a pure fear that scientific integrity could be compromised in such processes.

This also assumes that researchers better understand the communication spaces where citizens, politicians, or journalists operate. To borrow from Luhmann: in the media space, it’s not primarily about truth as it is in the scientific realm, but mainly about newsworthiness, or attention. Similarly, in politics, it’s not about truth but primarily about power. Reflecting on these connections, understanding them, and then illuminating and designing one’s own role as a communicator and actor based on them is a process that can be learned. I have recently heard about initial postgraduate programs on the role of science in policy advice. I find this very intelligent because it allows for systematic reflection on these subsystems, into which one enters and which operate by entirely different rules than scientific discourses.

This reflection also includes how science communicates in the public sphere—or perhaps it would be better to say: in the various public spheres—not just with clear research results and established knowledge but how it communicates scientific processes as a whole. This includes discussing uncertain knowledge, skepticism, criticism, and method diversity. It involves making clear and comprehensible how science operates. Here, people outside of the scientific community should be able to handle complexities. Thus, confidently communicating uncertainties and ambiguities, rather than succumbing to the fear that too much transparency about the limitations of knowledge might cede the playing field to populist simplifiers. This could happen because of the belief that communicating doubts could be instrumentalized to delegitimize research and politics. Explaining the scientific system is part of societal enlightenment and is at the core of science communication.

Should the scientists themselves handle this, or should specialized positions be created for it? Also, considering the limited resources of the scientists?

Communication offices within research institutions have proliferated in recent years, mushrooming like never before. At times, more communication roles have been created than actual research positions. However, this personnel typically focuses on the area of public relations, which, in my view, has been inflated and often comes across as uninteresting. Research institutions are thus delegating tasks of science to supposed specialists because they assume that researchers need translators to speak in the way that is commonly used in the media space. This approach is neither authentic nor particularly goal-oriented. We need active scientists for communication in societal spaces.

Does every researcher need to be a communicator now? I would say no, but if a person works on a topic that in any way touches upon societal transformation, perhaps through technology application or social practices, they should have reflected on their role in the societal space. And if they choose to play such a role actively or even as an activist, they should gain clarity about the speaker position they assume in various contexts when entering an interaction space with society. Where am I still THE scientist, and where am I THE citizen? Do I have a different speaker position than the person next door when I carry a “follow the science” sign at a demonstration? How do I interact with knowledge holders outside the scientific community? How does this change my own work as a scientist? And so forth.

So, science should communicate but not be too political?

To quote Paul Watzlawik, there is no non-communication. Even non-communication is a form of communication. In reality, science is constantly communicating in the political space, and acknowledging this is extremely important. This involves a changing space of reflection between science and society, which science must better research and explore, especially with a focus on the bidirectionality often invoked in different memoranda. In articles addressing science communication, this aspect is often overlooked. Most publications on science communication barely go beyond reflecting on the communication of research results. This is too limited, and I’ll emphasize it again: in our transformational society, we are in a situation where science plays a very different role in societal processes than before, and the expectations of science are changing simultaneously. It is seen as a problem solver and a driver of transformation, not just as a producer of knowledge. Science communication needs to adapt to this shift.

Does this form of interactive science communication pose the risk of diluting the role of scientists and, as a result, diminishing trust in science?

I am convinced that scientific presence and integrity in societal transformation and communication spaces strengthen trust in science. There are very few relevant topics that are not influenced or shaped by science. This is precisely why it is important to clarify who plays what roles in such situations that require societal understanding, political decisions, or new practices. It is an important thought process that one must go through and enrich with experiences because there is currently a lot of confusion in the different expectations of the actors involved. In the end, this process sharpens the role of science rather than dilutes it.

Do you have an ideal or example of what effective science communication looks like?

Those who interact, communicate: Where does communication happen in your family? At the kitchen table, where they eat together. Communication takes place there because they are doing something collectively. I see a similar perspective when it comes to science. When you start to interact more with societal actor groups, communication happens automatically, and there’s no need for artificially created communication spaces or specialists that require a lot of money and resources.

In Germany, institutions like the Weizenbaum Institute or the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society are setting good examples because they are intertwining science communication with transfer-oriented and transdisciplinary scientific concepts that develop, in part, from interactions with society. Others can learn from this: it should change the general approach and understanding of science communication. Effective science communication takes place in societal spaces with other knowledge holders and actor groups, where social, technical, or economic processes of change are reflected upon and addressed. We are generally far from such a practice in Germany. Other countries, such as those in Scandinavia, are more advanced in this regard.

An interview by Teresa Völker.