‘There´s immense curiosity about nanotechnology in our society, but also concern. I´m involved as an expert in various popular-science projects, with books and web initiatives, about nanotechnology. But above all, I take part in many interviews in magazines and newspapers and on the radio and television. I want to give a balanced picture and try to tell people about opportunities and threats, to prevent a black-and-white image of nanotechnology. Above all, I want to say that we´re very much aware of the risks, and talk about what we´re doing to learn more about them. The interest and concern I meet are not unique to nanotechnology. I notice that stem-cell researchers, for example, often get the same types of question. To us researchers, the questions themselves are interesting information — they make us aware of what people in general are thinking and wondering about, and what they want to know about our research.
‘I believe that the public needs good, balanced knowledge about new technology. This doesn´t always have to be at a detailed level but just a broad grasp of what the hazards and uses can be. In particular, it´s important for politicians to gain solid knowledge, so that they can pass the laws that are needed in this area. They don´t exist yet, but they´ve got to come. We have the National Food Administration and the Medical Products Agency, but not a body that can supervise nanotech issues in a corresponding way. What the rules and regulations should be is an issue that affects us all: researchers, decision-makers, opinion formers and the public.´
‘Actually, I´ve always collaborated with the research community in various ways. From the start, it was a matter of contacting researchers because I wanted to learn more, so as to succeed better in my job. But quite soon the mutual benefits of collaboration became clear. The researchers often needed images and film sequences for their work — to reveal phenomena and situations they hadn´t managed to document themselves. But above all, they obtained a channel for reaching out to others with their knowledge.
‘At present, I work regularly for National Geographic magazine, but I also collaborate with a lot of other organisations, including the Swedish Research Council. I´m privileged to be constantly working on projects that put me in touch with leading researchers from all over the world and a wide range of fields. It´s striking how much research, inspiringly described in a popular and at the same time scientifically correct way, is important and relevant to a large section of the public. When these two worlds — research and art — meet and work creatively together, we can describe the world in a way that´s both credible and exciting, and really influence the public, businesses and politicians.
‘What drives me is the desire to describe the world in such a way that people understand that what they do matters — that it´s important to take a stance and then act, and get involved in issues, so as to have a positive impact. I also want to make young people understand that the world isn´t fully explored yet. Sometimes we tend to think that everything has already been surveyed, but everyone who does research knows that this is completely wrong. There´s so much left to discover! Our TV-film The Linnaeus Expedition, where the Research Council is one of our partners, was about just that.´
‘We are a public-service company with the function of promoting education and knowledge. We broadcast many scientific programmes and cooperate closely with higher education institutions. Scientific broadcasts are nothing new as such, but that fact that universities and colleges are so willing to join in and play such an active part in research communication is a welcome development. This is a form of cooperation that has developed tremendously, and that we´re very keen on. With the academics´ involvement, we make programmes both for the public and specifically for students in higher education.
‘In cooperation with higher education institutions, the Swedish Research Council and other bodies, we make the television programme Vetenskapslandet (‘Land of Science´), which depicts research and other activities in Swedish higher education. This is important from several points of view: both to show the public how resources are used in the world of higher education and to spread the new knowledge that research gives us. And we know that there´s a large interested section of the public out there.´
“Many driving forces underlie my work in scientific communication. One of these is my conviction that historical knowledge is important, both to gain a deeper understanding of the age we live in and to enhance our ability to analyse complex issues.” she says.
Karin Johannisson is engaged in interdisciplinary research involving, e.g. medical history, gender research, and cultural history. She has written a number of books, several of which have been nominated for the prestigious August Prize.
Karin Johannisson believes it is important to establish contacts with groups outside of the scientific and academic community. Furthermore, she wants to create interdisciplinary ties between different subjects and scientific fields. Science communication also enhances the potential for productive interaction with other people. Her primary target group includes most of the professions in medicine, health care, and social services, as well as politicians, the public, and various women´s networks. At times she turns to artistic groups, e.g. dance and theatre.
“When I´m out there speaking about my favourite research, I meet groups and individuals from various professions and interest groups who I can learn something from. Without such outward-orientated activity my research would probably lose some of the depth necessary to define and illuminate key issues.”
In writing about popular science, Karin Johannisson aims to maintain a high scientific standard while writing in a style that everyone can read and understand. Naturally, she admits, outward-orientated activity takes time away from research.
“But it isn´t constructive to complain about too little time. Instead, one should reserve a specific time for writing, preferably every week. “
“I always prepare for every meeting, trying to adapt my method of communicating and the content of what I say to reach the audience´s level of knowledge and interest.”
When asked to describe what drives Elisabeth Lindgren to communicate about science, she says that in her heart she is an idealist. She thinks that people need to understand how things link together so they develop a holistic view and have the potential to act on problems. She aims at all target groups — for example, students, researchers, decision makers, authorities, the business community, and the general public — in Sweden and abroad. Reaching all of these groups requires considerable reflection.
Elisabeth Lindgren also emphasises the importance of adapting the visual components of communication. Images that are not directed at research colleagues should be easy to understand and aesthetic. Working to communicate about research should never be viewed as lost time, but as an essential part of the job, according to Elisabeth Lindgren. She gives an example of how to create shortcuts towards good science communication by establishing a way station. Albaeco, at Stockholm University, collects research findings and converts them into easily accessible information that can be disseminated further. As a tip to research colleagues who want to become better science communicators, Elisabeth Lindgren offers:
“Always be prepared. Reflect on your message, and then make sure to get it across clearly. And as an extra bonus — if your presentation is good, and the audience responds, you will find science communication to be a rewarding experience.”
“Clarity and credibility are two keywords in scientific communication.”
Professor Källén finds it equally enjoyable to lecture on an advanced research level as on a popular science level. Although he views students as his primary target group, in recent years he has been increasingly involved with the media and has lectured to wider audiences.
“However, it is just as important to reach out to politicians, administrators, and business leaders as it is to reach out to the public.” he says.
Erland Källén emphasises the role of the media in reaching out with scientific information. Working through the media, researchers can also inform and influence colleagues in other areas of science.
Although he thinks that the public´s perception of the climate situation seems to be basically correct, occasionally he finds surprisingly misinformed opinions — even among research colleagues and other highly educated individuals.
“Since the climate problem is incredibly complex, and will soon affect every sector of society, it is not easy to have an accurate and comprehensive view of the situation.” he says.
Professor Källén suggests that the lack of time is a problem for researchers who want to work seriously with science communication.
“It´s difficult to find the time to do everything you would like to do.”
Text: Jenny Johansson and Anders Nilsson