Science - February 27, 2013

Spreading the word

Wageningen does not have too many scientists who seek out a wider public, acting as ambassador or marketeer for their own work. But perhaps all they need is a good example to follow. A tale about impact, missionary zeal and a new prize.

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'It was a peak year, 2011' says Arnold van Vliet with justifiable pride, 'with 150 newspaper articles, 50 TV appearances and more than 50 appearances on the radio, we reached a potential audience of nearly 200 million people.' Wait a minute - 200 million people? That is 12 times as many as live in the Netherlands. To prove his claim, Wageningen's most famous biologist spreads out a bar chart on the table. This graph summarizes his exposure since 1998.
Van Vliet keeps track of all his media appearances with scientific precision. The date, the medium, his reach... Or should we say potential reach, based on viewing and listening figures, newspaper sales and adjustment factors to allow for the fact that one newspaper or magazine is read by several people. '2011 was the year of the oak processionary caterpillar, the Splashteller, Insect Experience and the drought,' says Van Vliet in explaining his bumper year. 'That's huge of course, 450 articles. And they often mention the name of Wageningen University.'
Missionary work
Twitter king Michael Muller also knows precisely how many people he reaches as Twitter itself keeps good records of this: The count at the start of last week was 4428 followers, 13,831 tweets. 'These are mainly insiders, colleagues and people in my own group,' estimates the nutrition professor. They are the main intended target for his English-language tweets. 'I mainly use Twitter for hard core science: short messages about new publications with a link for more information. Most of my followers are English speakers.' But he does not keep strictly to science. Muller's achievements as a runner also find their way onto Twitter: 'beach of Portimao I just finished a 8.46 km run with a pace of 5'30"/km with Nike+ Running'.
Muller aims to reach a much wider audience with his nutrigenomics website (nutrigenomics.nl). 'This is really for lay people, with links to publications for people who want to know more.' He himself calls it missionary work. 'I put so much passion into it. It's all my own work. Someone from a review committee once said: people in the food industry don't read Nature or Science. If you want to reach them you will have to publish in different media and simplify your complex results. Of course I was disappointed at first that our high-impact science made such little impression on the committee, but later I understood that we have to learn to communicate in a simpler manner.'
For now, PhD student Martijn van Staveren can only dream of the wider impact achieved by Van Vliet and Muller. Van Staveren (Disaster Studies Group) has been blogging together with three colleagues since mid-2012 about his doctoral research on flooding. Up to now the blogs (dynamicdeltas.blogspot.nl) have attracted a modest 600 to 700 visitors. 'And we haven't had too many comments,' he admits. 'We had hoped for more but it hasn't taken off as yet. We try to post something once a week. The idea is also to occasionally invite people from outside our group to write a piece.'
Citizen Science
Van Vliet, Muller and the young researcher Van Staveren are examples of modern researchers actively spreading the word about their science. These are scientists who explicitly choose to address a wider public. However, they each have their own reasons for doing this. Arnold van Vliet is extremely serious about having an impact. He collaborates with thousands of volunteers to study the timing of annually recurring phenomena in nature in relation to climate change (natuurkalender.nl), the development of ticks and Lyme disease (tekenrader.nl) and hayfever (allergieradar.nl). This epitomizes Citizen Science, in which active communication with society is of crucial importance.
A press release in 2000 brought Van Vliet in contact with the radio programme Vroege Vogels. That contact resulted in the Natuurkalender observation project. It soon became a hit. 'We had 2000 people applying to be observers within a couple of weeks. It was an eye-opener for me. As a scientist you want to help society with its problems. But if you want to get the general public doing things, if you want things to change, then you will have to get people actively involved in your research and actively inform them. And you need mass media for that. That was a crucial realization for me.'
According to Van Vliet, their impact on society is becoming increasingly important for scientists. In the last external review, his environmental group was alone in getting the maximum score of five in all categories. 'An important factor was that we were able to quantify our impact. My tip is to keep track of it.'
Every gene counts
While biologist Van Vliet relies on the input from his public for his research, for the nutritionist Muller, communication is missionary work. He is spreading the gospel of nutrigenomics. Which is much needed, according to Muller. 'Nutrigenomics has taken us into a whole new world. Before, nutritional scientists were dealing with 20 variables, say. If you eat this, then that will happen. Now we have 20,000. Every gene counts. That is a kind of quantum leap. Nutrigenomics is a revolution and we need to spread that message.'
Our research shows how complex health is, how complex our bodies are. Nutrition is all about the fine-tuning. We are trying to get a picture of this. How can people stay healthy for as long as possible and how can nutrition help them achieve that? But the general public still knows very little about the use of nutrigenomics technology in health sciences. You need communication to change that.'
Muller points to another reason to use Twitter a lot. 'People often think that everyone is an expert when it comes to nutrition. After all, everyone eats and drinks and has their own experiences. But those are all studies with n=1. It's not that simple. Nutrition is a serious science.'
History book
Blogger Van Staveren is neither a missionary nor a publicity junk. He blogs because he enjoys it. 'If you are enthusiastic about your work, a blog is a nice way of telling others about it.' It also makes a change. 'It's common in projects that are part of a major research programme to build a project website. You then put all your project documents on that site. But we found that too run-of-the-mill. Everyone does that already, you won't stand out from the crowd. What is more, such sites are not specifically targeted at the general public. We wanted to do things differently. A blog is much more relaxed and informal than a programme website.'
While it may be more informal, that does not make it less valuable, thinks Van Staveren. 'Blogging is an exercise in writing articles, not just for the in-crowd but also for outsiders. A blog also serves as a kind of history book; if you look back, you can see how your work has developed. And what is perhaps most important is that blogging encourages you to think about your research uptake. In other words, who might be interested in what I am doing. You try and think about what will happen to your results. In the first instance, our customer is the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), which is funding this. But we are not just doing this for the project coordinators, We are doing this for the wider community that is involved with this topic, the entire sector working on flooding issues.'
Publicity prize
Van Vliet, Muller and Van Staveren are ambassadors, each in their own way. Moreover, they are self-made ambassadors because scientists who wish to address the general public have to figure out an approach all by themselves. Perhaps that is why they are so rare. Dean Johan van Arendonk, head of the graduate schools, acknowledges that many Wageningen scientists 'avoid public debate'. But is that due to a lack of training? 'Communication is extremely important for a scientist and therefore it is also important that PhD students encounter that during their training,' replies Van Arendonk diplomatically. 'Communication is an essential skill but you do need a customized approach. I don't believe in compulsory communication courses. But I do believe in encouragement, carrots rather than sticks. You should get people thinking about the options. That is why good examples are so important; they show people what is possible. Why not set up a publicity prize for doctoral students, for example? Prizes work really well as a prize puts the good examples in the spotlight. I'm convinced it would snowball then and you'd see people taking courses of their own accord.'
Accidental publicity
There can be little doubt who would win the publicity prize for 2012: Marjolein Helder. No Wageningen PhD student has had more media attention than Helder and Plant-e, her plant-generated electricity startup. And it hasn't stopped. 'I could really have a full-time job talking to everyone who approaches me: the press, students, schoolchildren, bloggers, companies, politicians...'
She explains how it all started with a short announce-ment for the intranet. 'After all, it's not that common for somebody at Wageningen UR to set up their own business. The press information officer asked if he could publicize it. Who knows, perhaps De Gelderlander, the regional newspaper, would pick it up. But then the Dutch news agency rang, all hell broke loose and we ended up on the main TV news programme.'
Helder received media attention without really wanting it or doing anything to get it. Would she not rather have had some training? 'Training is useful in principle. It is useful to know how to explain your research to the general public, if only because it forces you to think about the purpose of your own research. Funding organizations really like it if you occasionally seek publicity. It can be really useful for postdocs to get into the newspapers from time to time. I think it would be ideally suited to people on the tenure track: how can I sell my research to the general public and make it easier to get funding? But making communication compulsory doesn't work. You need to enjoy doing it. Of course, Plant-e is a topic that really appeals to people. But you also have to like constantly having to repeat the same story.'
Self-taught publicity man Van Vliet has strong opinions on the matter. Training is crucial in his view. 'That is why I spend some time on this in the Environmental Systems Analysis course: two hours on the power of communication.' And could a prize help? 'It would at least be a sign that the management values communication. Scientists often say that their work is not newsworthy. That is rubbish! There is always a story in there. But you do need to take the initiative yourself and get past the first hurdle.' 

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