The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we both carry out and communicate research. While public interest greatly increased, so did expectations. Consequently the scientific community needed to increase its pace while maintaining the same high level of credibility in results and their dissemination creating an incredible challenge. How do researchers perceive their roles today and what can we do to improve how confidence in research is perceived?
In order to better understand the impact of the pandemic in this area, Elsevier launched its global ‘Confidence in Research’ programme to propose a set of actions and interventions that can support researchers in their efforts to advance knowledge that benefits society. The initiative, managed by the Economist Impact, includes a landmark global survey of 3,000 researchers and expert roundtables in six countries – China, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States – each held in partnership with a local partner organization.
Working closely with our local partner, the Körber Stiftung, our goal for the German roundtable was to provide a platform for analysis and discussion in order to accurately map the German research community’s views on confidence in research.
Matthias Meyer, Head of Science at Körber Stiftung, remarked: “We as a foundation did not hesitate to participate in this project because all our activities in this field deal with the relationship between science and society. From the very beginning, the intention was not just to publish quietly, but to initiate a broad discussion on its results. What we are doing today is nothing less than the start of this debate in Germany. Science has a duty to be accountable to society. We should orient ourselves towards the question of how we can work together on the integrity of research by creating conditions under which its communication succeeds better than it has so far.”
The Berlin roundtable took place at the offices of the Körber Stiftung in Berlin and was expertly moderated by Jeanne Rubner, Vice President of Global Communication and Public Engagement at the Technical University of Munich. 19 stakeholders from academia and research, funding organizations, the press, the German government, and non-governmental organisations were present.
Below are insights and key takeaways from the Berlin roundtable when it comes to confidence in research:
1. Findings must be contextualised with perspectives of policy makers and the general public.
Researchers tend to have a subjective view of their own work: they overestimate the reliability and reproducibility of findings in their field, as well as the quality of their communication to policy makers. Moreover, they often believe that good communication of science is directly linked to sensible policy decisions. However, the policy system often instrumentalises those parts of research and science it sees fit for purpose.
2. Peer review fosters internal, but not necessarily external confidence in science.
Quality control is always important for establishing confidence and trust. Peer-review, a well-established method in the scientific community for ensuring that research findings have gone through a rigorous system of quality control, is important for researchers’ confidence in findings when examining the work of colleagues. This is less true for the broader public.
3. To foster confidence in research externally, science must not be overcommunicated or trivialised and it must be made clear that quality research takes time.
In the pandemic, there was an overcommunication and de-professionalisation of science. But while everyday knowledge can inform expert knowledge, expert knowledge needs to be positioned and appreciated as such. Even though the pandemic gave rise to the expectation that research results can be produced and put to use quickly – and global crises will prolong that expectation – the research system is not designed to do that (personnel, funding, paradigm shifts, research all take time and money). The development of mRNA vaccination goes back to over 20 years of basic research, something that should continually be highlighted.
4. In order to foster external confidence in research, researchers need institutional support in communication.
When communicating science, researchers receive little or no institutional support, especially when they encounter possible hate and abuse. Even though the federal research ministry incentivises capacity building in science communication, institutions have done little to follow the call. And while there are calls for specific target groups, such as early career researchers, different disciplines face different challenges; a one-fits-all solution does not work. Whereas scientists primarily use social media to communicate with their colleagues, it not a “safe space”: a majority of German researchers do not use social media in the first place for fear of abuse online and the science community “shunning” colleagues communicating through social media.
5. Gatekeepers can facilitate the communication and transfer process of science.
Science journalists, science communicators and other gatekeepers can help to contextualise findings, providing a more efficient transfer of scientific knowledge into public policy. They can also help explain research, avoiding overly simple “presentations” of research to the public. Such gatekeepers can be internal and external to universities and non-university research institutions; the Science Media Center based in Cologne is an especially good example of such a gatekeeper in Germany.
The roundtable analysed current pain points of practicing and communicating science in order to identify solutions and courses of action which foster confidence in research and best serve the needs of the society, especially during global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. While navigating the changed research and communication landscape, we look forward to working together with the science community and supporting the development of solutions to improve the integrity of research and science.