How does science affect you

"We owe a lot to science in this crisis"

The interview was published on June 29th, 2020 in the blog "Wissenschaftommuniziert".

Science communicates: Minister Karliczek, the first question these days naturally relates to Corona. How do you assess the situation of science communication today, after the experience with Corona?

Karliczek: The corona pandemic has completely turned our entire life upside down and we will have to deal with the consequences for a long time. However, during the pandemic - and this is one of the few positive sides of the crisis - there is also a high level of appreciation for scientific research and expertise in our society. Because the citizens perceive much more directly how complex the scientific knowledge process and also political decisions are and what important basis scientific expertise represents for political decisions. We all already have a lot to thank science for in this crisis. The citizens notice that.

But hasn't the Corona crisis also revealed new problems in science communication that is in the midst of society, such as the communication problems of the Heinsberg study or the Bild-Zeitung campaign against Prof. Drosten? Can science, must science put up with it?

It is not always easy for laypeople to understand that scientific knowledge is almost always preliminary. This is what research is all about. The findings of today are therefore not wrong. But they can always be questioned. This shows me that we have to explain the processes and methods of science even better. For example, that there are pre-publications that can then be openly discussed with other experts, even across disciplines. For me, conveying this is an essential part of science communication. Discourse is part of the essence of science. Enduring it is sometimes a challenge. He is important and valuable.

We are in a dynamic process of knowledge about SARS-CoV-2. Science is learning more about the virus every day. And we need to keep researching. For politics, this also means that we may have to keep realigning our decisions. Take the discussion about school closings or school openings. Of course we have to explain such a process. And we do that too.

In the Corona period, science was of course very much included in the social struggle for distribution and opinion. Can this be done by scientists who think and discuss very differently, can this really be expected of them?

I believe that it is also in the interests of science if it is in good dialogue with citizens. Science is part of this society. The scientific landscape is large and its findings are closely related to the life of each individual. The exchange between research and society should therefore also be part of everyday scientific life.

Of course, it must not be - to be very clear - that individual scientists are made responsible for political decisions and personally attacked as a result of this exchange. These attacks, including death threats, were a new negative climax in a shocking development. The polarization of the discourse that we are experiencing stunned me. That is why I say: We must protect all those affected, in this case science, from hatred.

And we have to differentiate: Science continuously advises politicians on the current state of their findings and makes recommendations for action. But we make the political decisions as elected politicians. And we politicians are responsible for difficult decisions. I encourage all scientists not to withdraw from the public discourse, but to continue to actively communicate their findings.

So you say: We have to do everything we can to ensure that scientists do not turn away from public discussion again. What could it be, what could encourage scientists, despite such controversies and disputes, to continue to “actively communicate”, as you say?

The basic motivation should be the recognition that science, as part of society, has a large part in its development. If scientists do not feel qualified to deal with controversial topics in public, we have to consider what support they need. Not every researcher is a born communicator. But communication can be learned. It shouldn't fail because of the "basics". Science communication should therefore play a greater role in the training of young scientists. Here the curricula of the universities and further education offers have to develop in line with the times.

It is also important that the effort to communicate, in whatever form, including social media, is recognized within science itself. A lot has happened here in recent years. Science communication is becoming more and more professional among research organizations. But it is not yet the case that scientists can naturally integrate the exchange with the public into their everyday work. I would like to see a rethink here.

But in view of the complexity of communication, scientists - who not only communicate, but above all do good research - do not need supporters - consultants, sparring partners, people who develop strategies - by their side, i.e. well-trained science communicators who are also profound have professional experience?

Every scientific institution now has well-equipped press and communication departments. These have been built up over the past 20 years. This is thanks to the PUSH memorandum. The researchers therefore have in-house expertise that they should be able to rely on. Nowadays, research is mostly done in teams, often in an interdisciplinary manner. Researchers with a particular affinity for communication could devote themselves to communication tasks in such teams and should receive the appropriate qualifications, resources and recognition for this.

Here, my company is currently working on proposals for a thorough anchoring of science communication in research funding in order to give scientists more leeway. And don't forget: There are already good institutions that deal with science communication, such as Science in Dialogue, the National Institute for Science Communication or the Science Media Center, which mediates between science and journalism.

How do you intend to ensure that science communication receives the appropriate support from science?

In future, external communication with the public should also be considered in every research project, if possible. How can I communicate my work in such a way that it is also received by society? Communication essentially depends on the fact that I think about where to pick up my addressees. How can I explain my actions to them?

Technical expertise is available in the research teams, and communication expertise is to be expanded over the next few years. In the future, more project funds can be requested for this purpose, so that the researchers' communication services are also rewarded.

Pick up the target group where they are. To do this, science has to know a great deal about society and the developments and changes that are taking place in it. Do you think that this knowledge is already widespread enough in science?

Science is a cornerstone of our society and should be committed to the common good. I am convinced that anyone who seeks an exchange with society, who listens to what questions people have, will benefit immensely. But we need even more interfaces where such an exchange can take place on an equal footing. Real-world laboratories are an example or online consultations like the ones we have just carried out as part of the Decade Against Cancer.

Of course, the idea also works the other way round: In citizen science projects, for example, every citizen can really make a small contribution to research and thus get a connection to science. On the one hand, interest in research is aroused, on the other hand, both sides gain an understanding of how science can be enriched by impulses from society.

When we presented our policy paper on science communication, Professor Boetius reported how it was 30 years ago: If a scientist appeared too often on television, he could no longer be appointed to a position because this was a discrediting factor. It is necessary to break these mechanisms. The world has changed in the last 30 years - especially the media world.

Now everyone has to set off, think outside the box, think outside the box - for the good of society.

I would like to take the subject one step further. Science, too, has changed over the past 30 years, not just society. Many of their results have a direct impact on society today, such as climate research, and soon artificial intelligence as well. How does science have to communicate so that politics can participate in these developments, that the social effects are recognized and included in research?

Hasn't science always had a direct impact on society? It is through the pursuit of science for the new that humanity evolves. And we see again and again that the quality of public discourse on controversial topics is decisive for how open-minded or hostile society is to innovation.

Take, for example, the discussion on gene scissors. It is the task of science and politics to discuss such far-reaching technological developments with citizens on the basis of facts. A social dialogue about opportunities and risks is particularly important when it comes to questions that affect ethical values. Society likes to take up good arguments. We just have to communicate it in an understandable and comprehensible way. I am firmly convinced that good communication benefits society, but also science itself!

Minister, thank you very much for talking to us.