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RL #038: Think like a Think Tank – Communicating with Political Impact

In this reading list, we want to look at the communication methods think tanks use to bring science into politics.

Professional providers of science communication–whether embedded in research institutions, as companies such as Oikoplus, or think tanks–aim to communicate research results clearly and transparently and make knowledge available for public debate. The target audience for this is diverse. One relevant target group that is usually among the declared addressees of science communication is political decision-makers. In this Reading List, we therefore want to focus on communication methods aimed at policymakers and take a look at think tanks.

According to Sarah Lewis from TechTarget, think tanks create a space for debate, the generation of ideas and ways to disseminate knowledge. For a target group of lawmakers and political strategists, it is not just about providing information, but to provide the basis for decisions. As Clair Grant-Salmon points out, ‘gone are the days of producing standard sets of marketing activities that we can apply to all [target audiences]’. Nowadays, think tanks need to know who they are targeting and what they want to achieve.

Policy oriented think tank work, as stated by Annapoorna Ravichander results in ‘sets of guidelines to help achieve outcomes in a reasonable manner’. They are different from processes and actions. Policies are broad and set a certain direction. While science communication may not have a direct policymaking ambition, it can play a significant role in shaping policy debates, informing decision makers and influencing the development of ideas. And there are methods which can be applied in order to achieve policy influence. 

The most central way for science communicators to achieve policy impact, is providing policymakers with expertise and consultation. Science communicators can place researchers as consultants to government agencies, providing input in the policy-making process. There is, however, a challenge in this method. According to Andrea Baertl Helguero, in order to have influence on policy through consulting, think tanks should maintain a strong intellectual transparency and ensure their research is diligent and reliable. 

Another crucial method to achieve policy influence is networking. It’s a classic method used by think tanks. As Alejandro Chaufen explains in an article for Forbes, networking allows think tanks to create platforms where ideas can be exchanged and a consensus can be build around policy agendas

A question of format

An established format for presenting research findings to policymakers are policy briefing papers. A policy brief is a concise, well-researched and informed summary of a particular issue, the policy options for addressing that issue and some recommendations. These briefs are an important tool for presenting research findings and recommendations based on them to a non-scientific audience to support decision-making. Policy briefs allow science communicators to communicate their research and findings in a way that conveys the urgency of the issue and is accessible to people with different levels of knowledge. However, here too, research institutions should ensure transparency and remain independent and transparent when presenting problems, options or proposed solutions.  

When policy impact is the declared goal of science communication, this generates  a need for anticipatory methods such as foresight and forecasting, which can help inform policy action and increase societal resilience in a sustainable way. Science communicators should take a long-term view of policy change, work over-time and build momentum for the topics and ideas they work with. Mark Halle, for International Institute for Sustainable Development, states that ‘think tanks cannot afford vagueness […]’. They must create outputs, which are clear, targeted, and incorporate a vision of long-term, positive effects.  

This text hopefully serves as a good introduction to the question of what can be learned from think tanks when it comes to achieving political impact through science communication. And this leads almost inevitably to the question of how to measure the impact of research in the first place. Fortunately, we have already dealt with this in other Readings Lists, e.g here

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      RL #037: 10 Learnings from Science Communication

      What can we learn from science communication? A reading list based on the experiences of the first five years of Oikoplus.

      1. Relevant target groups may be small.

      The success of communication is often measured in reach. Reach is also a hard currency in communication for research and innovation projects. However, science dissemination is often very specific, and it’s small target groups that are particularly relevant for successful project communication. In our Domino-E project, for example, one of the most relevant target groups is the small group of people involved in programming satellite missions for earth observation purposes. This target group is not only small, but it is also not easy to identify the communication channels through which it can be reached. However, the content for this target group is specific enough to be able to assume that the target group will find the relevant content as long as it is easy to find. So we decided to use YouTube as a channel.

      1. Simplifying does not have to mean trivializing.

      The closer you zoom in on a topic, the bigger it becomes. Many topics and issues appear straightforward at first glance, and only on closer inspection do their complexity, depth and multi-layered nature become apparent. Nevertheless, it is not wrong to take a superficial look at a topic first and only delve deeper in the second step. For experts who are extremely well-versed in a particular subject area, it is often difficult to allow this superficial view. They are too aware of the aspects that only become apparent on closer inspection. And that’s why the superficial view feels like a simplification to them, and often like a trivialization. It is important to allow simplification. But it should be correct. Our REACT project, which deals with the control of pest insect species, can be summarized easily: Insects are sterilized so that they can mate with wild-type insects in the wild without producing offspring. The insect population shrinks in the medium term due to the lack of offspring. In this way, agriculture is protected from the pest. Technically, this method involves a great deal of effort. Nevertheless, we have tried to explain the project in as simple and understandable terms as possible.

      Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash
      1. The “general public” does hardly exist.

      Science communication aims to make research accessible to the general public. This broad public can therefore be found as a target group in the applications and descriptions of many research and innovation projects. However, from a communication perspective, the general public hardly exists. Addressing the public as a whole is damn difficult, or rather: it is impossible. Developing key messages and storytelling approaches automatically involves a selection of target groups. Not everyone finds everything interesting. And if you manage to meet the interests of as many different target groups as possible, that’s already a great communication success. To gain an understanding of how diverse the target groups of our communication in research and innovation projects can be, we have our project partners develop personas in interactive workshops at the start of a project. These are fictitious people who we then use to jointly consider what needs to be done to reach them through our project communication: with which messages, on which channels, when, why, and with what goal in mind? It usually becomes clear quite quickly that the general public is only an auxiliary term that indicates that each project can address many different target groups.

      1. Never underestimate how exciting any topic can be.

      How interesting a topic is sometimes isn’t obvious at first glance. No wonder: not every topic can be perceived as equally exciting, and it always depends on how a topic is presented. You could say that it is the job of science communicators like Oikoplus to ensure that a topic arouses the interest of as many people as possible. That is true. But even those who do science communication, first have to find their very own interest in a topic. This does not always happen straight away, which is why it is part of our work to actively seek out approaches to any given topic in which we recognize the potential to tell a story to a specific target group. We therefore force ourselves to be curious and to think empathetically about what the thematic appeal could be for other target groups. Sooner or later, the penny will drop – and then communication will be much easier.

      5. Even those who conduct the most exciting research don’t always like to talk about it.

      As a journalist, you sometimes have to worm the information you want to convey out of the interviewees. You have to keep asking questions because the interest in conveying information tends to be one-sided. If you’re not doing journalism, but science communication on behalf of science, then this can also happen. This can be surprising, as one would think that the dissemination of information is in the interest of both the scientists and the public and that in the role of the communicator, one only has to do the mediation work. In practice, however, we have often found that researchers sometimes do not always like to talk about their work and that even basic explanations have to be laboriously elicited from them. There is no simple solution to this problem. It is important to build trust, present your communication work as transparently as possible, and create environments in which insights into scientific work are possible. In some cases, this can be a large video shoot in a laboratory with artificial lighting and large camera equipment, and in other cases, it can be a personal one-on-one conversation. In any case, science communication does not happen by itself, even when the most exciting research is communicated.

      Photo by Gabriel Valdez on Unsplash

      6. Quality and quantity.

      In science, quality is more important than quantity. In communication, this is sometimes not so clear. When the objectives for project communication are laid down in the applications for research projects, the corresponding KPIs are often set high. After all, a proposal submission should express high ambitions. If it is approved, you then realize that the goals may have been set too high and that publications, press releases, website articles, social media postings, photos, videos, and other project dissemination content can be produced, but that it is not easy to maintain your high-quality standards. High-quality content takes time. In our video series for the REACT project, for example, we try to explain the research project as comprehensively as possible and at the same time as clearly as possible. The first of the explanatory videos can be found here. Producing such videos requires a long and detailed exchange with the researchers involved. This is why dozens of such videos cannot be produced in a project like REACT. This should also be expressed in the objectives at the start of the project.

      7. Speed is not everything in communication.

      Rome wasn’t built in a day. And also, you have to take time in science communication. In other areas of communication, in journalism, PR, and advertising, speed is often a key quality feature. And there are also moments in science communication when it is important to react quickly. But in general, science communication follows the pace of science. For press relations, for example, this means that you can free yourself a little from the temporal logic of media operations. A research topic does not lose its relevance simply because it is no longer news. If, for example, a research paper was published several weeks ago, it is not pointless from the outset to draw journalists’ attention to the paper. This is a major difference between science communication and some other fields of professional communication work.

      Photo by Bradley Pisney on Unsplash
      1. You don’t have to fully understand what you are communicating.

      At Oikoplus, we often benefit from the fact that we approach the research projects that we support in terms of communication as laypeople. The fact that we are not experts in urban development, archaeology, crop protection, satellite technology, or the energy transition has helped us to ask the right questions in the projects that we implement in these areas. After all, the fact that we don’t immediately understand the methods and innovations of our projects is something we have in common with our target groups. This is not to be understood as a hymn to trivialization. Of course, it helps to familiarize yourself with the topics that are being communicated. But you also don’t have to be afraid to bring your expertise, namely communications expertise, to projects that you initially have no idea about. Don’t be afraid of rocket science. Even rocket scientists are sometimes dependent on communication experts.

      1. Think globally, act globally.

      To make an abstract topic accessible, it is often linked to a manageable aspect of people’s everyday lives. This is a common method in journalism. To draw attention to the consequences of global climate change, for example, changes to the ecosystem are described at a local level. This creates relatability. We wrote about this in Reading List #010. So far, so useful. In our communication for European and global research projects, we sometimes lack this local or everyday level. We design communication for international target groups – after all, research is international too. The slogan “think globally, act locally” therefore often becomes “think globally, act globally” for us. In concrete terms, this means that science communication cannot always respond to the needs of different local target groups. This is where translations into dozens of different languages and a lack of mobility alone can lead to failure. Science communication takes place on an international level. As a science communicator, you often have to trust that the topics you are communicating about will find their target groups – not the other way around.

      10. Curiosity is the best driver of communication.

      If you ask us at Oikoplus what drives us, the answer is easy. It is curiosity. In German, the word for it (Neugier) is derived from the greed (Gier) for something new (Neu). We took a critical look at this in one of our last reading lists. We understand curiosity as the constant interest in new experiences, insights, and perspectives. We see it as a great privilege of science communication that we can constantly learn something new in our work, and it even largely consists of this. We enjoy doing it.

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      RL #028: In Tech we trust, or not?

      In our projects at Oikoplus, we communicate science and research. They often involve new technologies, and often the promise that their use will tackle major challenges of our time. Technology solves problems. After all, that’s what it’s developed for. But should we really rely on new tech?

      In our projects at Oikoplus, we communicate science and research. They often involve new technologies, and often the promise that their use will tackle major challenges of our time. Technology solves problems. After all, that’s what it’s developed for. But should we really rely on new tech? Just yesterday, the new climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released and once more it warns of drastic climate change consequences that are only getting worse. Can inventions really be the key in the fight against climate change? After all, greenhouse gas emissions are themselves a consequence of industrialized processes that were once considered technological innovations.

      Perhaps the optimistic view of the technological future merely distracts us from the fact that the solution to the problem could have taken place long ago or in the present? And perhaps the real solution to the problem in many areas is less technology rather than more? Does techno-optimism often end up being greenwashing? The Financial Times Techtonic Podcast explores these questions in an episode from November 2022 that is well worth listening to.

      This is what Midjourney AI “imagines” ,green tech helping to tackle climate crisis’ to look like.

      Techno-optimism, over-optimism and powerful men

      Also in November 2022, Elizabeth Zhu took on the topic of tech-optimism in an opinion piece on stanforddaily.com, a news portal run by students at Standord University. The university in Palo Alto, California, is considered the higher education campus of Silicon Valley. The region isn’t exactly known for being dismissive of future technology. Zhu notes that even in the wake of scandals such as data leaks or the spread of Russian disinformation, companies like Facebook parent Meta are perceived as attractive employers with a grand vision of human connectivity. According to Zhu, this optimistic view of technology leads to a specific problem: „When more people rely on the ‘all-in-one’ power of carbon sucking technologies or cloud-brightening initiatives, systemic causes of climate change such as fossil fuel mining and pollution are overlooked.”

      Are technological solutions systematically used as a distraction from the causes of problems? A good introduction to this question is provided by the text “Over-Optimism in Technology and the Promotion of the Powerful Man” by Sofia Ribeiro and Viriato Soromenho-Marques, who conduct research at the University of Lisbon. They use the term technowashing in analogy to greenwashing. In this case, political actors deliberately direct all social hope in the direction of technology and the natural sciences in order to give the impression that solutions are already being worked on. It is precisely this technowashing that makes it possible to postpone the urgency of robust, integrated, ethical, equitable, and multidisciplinary measures and policies.

      And this is another version of the same prompt using Midjourney AI.

      Techno-solutionism vs. techno-criticism

      Another neat term, techno-solutionism, is used by Harry Surden in a symposium article in the Yale Journal of Regulation. Surden notes that techno-soultionism tends to glorify technologies such as artificial intelligence and unrealistically portray them as simple solutions to the much more complex, systemic problems in society. At the same time, however, techno-criticism tends to overemphasize the negative aspects of technologies, either by focusing excessively on potential future problems that may-or may not-occur, or by disproportionately emphasizing the borderline cases where a technology is problematic while overlooking other areas where it may incrementally bring significant societal improvements.

      At Oikoplus, in all our project communication we try not to pretend that the projects provide conclusive answers to pressing questions. After all, each of our projects is always just one of many contributions to the scientific treatment of major challenges. We are convinced that technology can always make a decisive contribution. But in the end, it is people who use technology. That’s why the big answers lie in human behavior, not in the technology itself. This is true not only in the future, but also in the present.

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      RL #026: Communicating Controversial Research

      On difficult topics, moral questions, research ethics and conflicts of interest in science communication.

      In science, there are subject areas that are teeming with communication pitfalls. Topics that are controversial in society, research that uses controversial methods and technologies with uncertain consequences. They require sensitivity and caution when it comes to communicating their results in an understandable and accessible way to a large and public audience. Ethical questions are often the subject of intense debate, because widespread social values and morals are challenged. Examples of such research topics are genetic engineering, animal experiments in the life sciences or aspects of gender studies in humanities.

      Many scientists working in such fields know this. They communicate cautiously and do not seek the great publicity to present their work and have it discussed publicly. Because where there is public discussion, there is a threat not only of objective and professional criticism, but also of shitstorms. Researchers who encounter criticism from outside their professional bubble usually feel misunderstood. And they are often not so wrong. Current studies show: People who have strong opinions on controversial research topics often rate their knowledge of these topics higher than it actually is.

      Photo by Zuzana Ruttkayova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-wooden-beach-dock-under-cloudy-sky-7225642/

      Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

      A researcher involved in one of the projects in which Oikoplus is a partner responsible for science communication and dissemination expressed this in an email just recently: „Our research requires that we are very careful with the information that is out there. I would like to avoid a situation of messaging getting misunderstood or misexplained. I could think of a gazillion ways this could go wrong in a spur of the moment.” Well – it’s hard to completely rule out the possibility of communication being misunderstood.

      At the very least, however, there is a very simple rule that can be followed if, because of the sensitivity of a topic, you attach great importance to remaining factually correct and offering as little room for interpretation as possible: Avoid humour, especially in social media. Good humour is the most difficult discipline of entertainment, and most punchlines do not come without collateral damage, without people feeling hit and hurt. Therefore, science communication usually has to be serious, polite and correct. Or else, one deliberately chooses the humorous path, even if it may be risky. Kelleigh Greene has written about humour in science communication for the Scientia blog. She argues that humour and science communication indeed do go together.

      No fear of the target audience

      Caution is required when communicating sensitive issues. However, one should not completely subject one’s communication to caution and avoid discourse. Science can withstand criticism. However, this does not mean that each individual scientist must be able to withstand criticism. What we always tell our partners in science: Don’t panic! The loudest critics in the discourse are rarely representative of the public as a whole. And sometimes particularly loud criticism belies quiet agreement. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 technology as a case, communication researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands investigated the different perspectives within the Dutch public on this relatively new genetic engineering method. The communication researchers used the Q method, in which statements from study participants (here n=30) are ranked according to the degree of agreement. It turned out that the participants were generally open and optimistic about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

      Photo by Edward Jenner: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-a-person-s-hands-holding-a-petri-dish-with-blue-liquid-4031369/

      Becoming aware of one’s own role

      This may make many scientists researching gene editing optimistic. In any case, it helps researchers to think about the target groups of their science communication. To do this, it’s a good idea to work together with communications experts. A study conducted by the Julius Kühn Institute in Quedlinburg, Germany, shows what such cooperation can look like. The geneticists researching there joined forces with communication scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The aim was to develop concrete recommendations for communication on the topic of genetic modification. Part of the result: Trust in science is high, and scientists are trusted to take safety, transparency and sustainability seriously. Therefore, scientists working on topics that are contentious should not hide. They are the ones who can contribute expertise. That’s what they are there for, you could say.

      Does expertise automatically lead to a conflict of interest?

      But not everyone sees it that way. In some debates, the expertise of researchers is interpreted as a conflict of interest: If, for example, female geneticists are in favour of relaxing the regulation of the use of genetic engineering, it is quickly said: how could female geneticists, of all people, be against this? An article by philosopher Alexander Christian in Frontiers deals with such possible conflicts of interest, using the CRISPR/Cas9 debate as an example.

      Cutting through discursive pitfalls is not easy. Sometimes it is simply impossible. But transparency and openness, can hardly hurt to enable the broadest and most open discussion about research and its results. At Oikoplus, we support researchers in explaining their work and making it accessible. We always advise them not to hide in the process.

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      RL #024: Hands-on: Gamification in Archeo-Tourism

      This Oikoplus Reading List is not about a specific issue in the field of Science Communication and Research Dissemination, for once. This Oikoplus Reading List is about one of our own projects.

      In the past two years we have learned a lot about archaeology through the participation of our association Sustainication e.V. (a quasi subsidary of Oikoplus) in the Interreg project ArcheoDanube. And about the exciting challenge of using archaeology to develop sustainable tourism concepts. 

      After two and a half intensive project years, ArcheoDanube will come to an end in 2022. In mid-November, the Closing Conference took place in the Slovenian city of Ptuj. The different institutions involved in the project from 11 countries of the Danube Region presented the results of the project. These include not only Guidelines for Local Archeo Plans as a vehicle for sustainable archeotourism, but also concrete local pilot actions in which the concept of Archaeological Parks was and will be tested.

      But what does ArcheoDanube have to do with science communication and Oikoplus? Well … plenty. Because embedding archaeology in tourism concepts requires the commmunication of research results – adapted to a specific place and specific target groups. The Sustainication/Oikoplus team was able to contribute to the project not only by writing an e-handbook on archaeological site management, but also by participating in three think tank workshops evaluating Local Action Plans in Szombathely (HU), Pilsen (CZ) and X (HR). 

      Digital Tools for ArcheoTourism Gamification

      And: We have developed a mobile app. The app ArcheoTales for Android and iOS, which was developed together with the Graz-based company Softwaregärtner, allows visitors to archaeological sites and museums to be sent on digital scavenger hunts. This allows cultural tourism providers and operators of heritage sites to offer didactically and playfully prepared content to different target groups. And visitors can experience the exhibition in the form of a puzzle game at their own, individual pace. Here, visitors communicate via mobile app with fictional characters in a mass-ger interface. 

      Another digital tool developed in the ArcheoDanube project is Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow. It is specifically aimed at cities and municipalities that have cultural heritage and archaeological sites and are looking for assistance in creating a tourism concept in the form of an archeopark. 

      In the ArcheoTales project, we have been able to learn an immense amount about archaeology and the cultural history of the Danube region, visit wonderful places with cultural tourism treasures, and meet fantastic colleagues from 11 countries. In the process, we made new friends and learned what good science communication can do in a field that was completely new to us – and how much fun it is to do it.