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Ionica Smeets Professor of Science Communication at Leiden University

Dr Ionica Smeets, one of the well-known ‘Maths girls’, has been appointed part-time Professor of Science Communication at Leiden University with effect from 1 July. Over the coming five years she will carry out research on science communication, how the subject is taught and how to raise students’ enthusiasm for the subject.

What are you going to do in the coming five years?

Ionica Smeets: ‘Researchers aren’t aware enough that science communication is a subject in its own right.’

Ionica Smeets: ‘Researchers aren’t aware enough that science communication is a subject in its own right.’ ‘My plans include developing what is currently a small science communication group into an institute, carrying out research that can give researchers practical tips or working on an application that will give the public at large one of those “aha experiences” because they have suddenly understood some complex issue. And teaching at all levels within the university: from science journalism for first-years to communication training for PhD candidates.’

Will you also be looking specifically at how the university handles science communication?

‘Maybe. It would be interesting to have a student researcher investigate the impact of the university’s press releases. I have just started making an inventory of what goes on in science communication within the university and I intend to hold on to the good things we already do. One initiative that I believe is really good is Rino, a foundation of Leiden natural scientists who travel around the country making presentations to schools. That’s something I want to set up for maths, and, who knows, maybe also for biology and astronomy. The department I’m working for is quite small and it will be great if we can make it an institute that our scientists can be proud of. One of the main things that strikes me that our scientists are rather sceptical about science communication.’

In what way are they sceptical?

‘First of all there’s the persistent prejudice that people who work in science communication only do that because they’re not good enough to carry out research. And then there’s the fact that when PhD candidates are offered a course in science communication, the course is often given by an external company. The course leader may then be very good at communication, but not at science. That tends to raise people’s suspicions.’

Why did you opt for Leiden?

‘There is already quite a lot of science communication research being done in Leiden, which makes it an attractive place to be. It’s also a broad-based university with both scientific and journalistic programmes. Not only that, I’m given a lot of freedom here to decide for myself what I want to do in this new position. And then there’s the practical side of things: I’ve lived in Leiden for the past eight years and really like it here. I have a good network locally, including contacts with such museums as Boerhaave and Naturalis, which is also a great bonus.’

It’s a part-time appointment, so you’ll continue to write your columns?

‘I will. I think it’s important is to keep in touch with what’s going on in practice. I’m also going to develop a pilot for a new TV programme for the Dutch broadcaster VPRO. That more or less completes my wish list: a part-time professorship, carrying on writing and doing television.’

What’s going wrong at the moment in science communication?

‘Researchers aren’t aware enough that science communication is a subject in its own right, with its own rules and skills. Scientists have the will to communicate with a broad public about their research, but they lack the knowledge about what does and doesn’t work for a particular target group. For example, I recently saw a set of slides that were full of formulae and nothing else. That’s such a pity. Why didn’t it occur to them to check whether that was the right way to go about it?’

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About Ionica Smeets

Ionica Smeets (1979) studied Maths at Delft University of Technology and obtained her PhD in 2010 in Leiden. She’s made a name for herself among the general public with her popular science columns, blogs, books and TV work. She and Jeanine Daems together are ‘the Maths Girls’; they write blogs and a column in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant where they look at everyday problems from a maths perspective. The blog has already won several awards. Between 2009 and 2011 Smeets also did postdoc research at Leiden University, together with Professor Bas Haring, on the best ways of presenting science to the general public. Their work has led them to write a book Vallende Kwartjes – Een slimme selectie van leesbare wetenschap. Smeets’ book Het exacte verhaal - Wetenschapscommunicatie voor bèta’s was published last year.

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