Universiteit Leiden

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‘Communication, too, has to be based in science'

Science communication is a lot more than writing a column or giving a lecture now and then. The communication itself also has to be firmly based in sound scientific research, is the message of Professor Ionica Smeets in her inaugural lecture.

Smeets was appointed Professor of Science Communication at Leiden University on 1 July 2015. Her inaugural lecture on 13 May is entitled Reflections on the value of science communication.

Evidence-based

In her lecture Smeets advocates more research on science communication. She explains: ‘Science communication is often regarded as a matter of just doing it. That's not so surprising, because this hands-on aspect is what's most visible: just think of columns, blogs or lectures at Studium Generale and at the Night of Arts and Science. These are just some of the ways that science is communicated to the public on a daily basis.'

But Smeets believes that these practical activities would benefit from more scientific underpinning. 'Science communication is often based on gut feelings about what does and doesn't work. It's by no means always clear whether you are achieving your aim - which is strange when you consider you're dealing with scientific issues. I would like to see an evidence-based approach to science communication.'

‘Nerdy’ girls

As an example, Smeets mentions the attempts to get more girls to study technical subjects. Girls are often used as role models in these kinds of campaigns, but research shows that this doesn't necessarily attract female students. 'And even more important,' Smeets continues, 'a nerdy girl at an information day attracts fewer female students than a young guy playing tennis or strumming a guitar.'

In the coming period Smeets hopes to enhance science communication with more of these kinds of surveys. Her aim is to do this together with different study programmes and with a view to the practical results that can be put into immediate use by scientists and knowledge institutions in their science communication. She has plans for studying jargon in the Earth Sciences and applying citizen science in Maths.

Evaluating researchers

Smeets hopes that science communication will become a more important part of the university world in the coming years. 'At the moment, universities evaluate their researchers on the basis of their research and much less on their teaching. It would be better if  activities oriented towards the public, such as writing newspaper articles, columns and giving lectures, were regarded as part of the working day of researchers. All that outreach is good for the visibility of the university as a whole.'

About Ionica Smeets

Ionica Smeets (1979) studied Maths at Delft University of Technology and obtained her PhD in 2010 at Leiden University. She known to the public for her popular science columns, blogs, books and television work. She has also written several books on science communication.