Researchers and Science Must Be a Stronger Presence in the Public Debate – University of Copenhagen

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16 June 2017

Researchers and Science Must Be a Stronger Presence in the Public Debate

Debate meeting

We need to see more evidence-based research in the public debate, and researchers therefore need to strengthen their competences in research communication. This was one of the main messages at a lively debate meeting with Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind and Director General of the Danish Health Authority Søren Brostrøm in the Jerne Auditorium on Tuesday.

On Tuesday several hundred researchers and students participated in a debate on the future of research in the Jerne Auditorium, where the minister for higher education and science og the director general of the Danish Health Authority each gave a presentation and answered questions from the audience.

The debate focussed both on finances, the competences of candidates, the level of study programmes, political interference with university operations, funding for free research, health data and lack of confidence in academic knowledge. One theme attracted special attention, though, namely researchers’ engagement in the public debate.

Popular Movement for Facts and Research
After a short welcome by President of the Academic Council and Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences Ulla Wewer, Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind gave a presentation. He emphasised the importance of research in the health and medical sciences for public health and growth in Denmark, but also made it clear that the university must address the current crisis of confidence in research by participating actively in the public debate.

‘This lack of confidence is a time bomb under our democracy. We need knowledge, and we need scientists to participate in the public debate. We must create a popular movement for facts and research. For many years research has been considered the first job of the university, while knowledge communication, to some, has been considered of secondary importance. This, I believe, is wrong’, Søren Pind explained.

At the same time, the minister encouraged researchers to maintain their professional competences, explain their methods, be transparent and admit to their mistakes, if necessary. He also said that researchers should limit themselves to commenting on subjects within their own field. Otherwise they risk becoming part of a tough, political discussion.

Teaching and Research Should Have a High Status
Another main message in the minister’s presentation was that the distance between the study programmes and the labour market and between research and the study programmes should be reduced.

People, whose main job is to teach, should be able to attract research funding, enabling them to stay up-to-date within their fields. Graduates should also be cultured human beings, ensuring that they will still be able to participate in the changing labour market 10 years from now.

Focus on Conflicts Creates Imbalance
Lack of confidence in the healthcare system was also the main topic for Søren Brostrøm, who as director general of the Danish Health Authority was deeply involved in the case of the HPV vaccine. According to Søren Brostrøm, the media coverage of the vaccine against cervical cancer has caused the number of vaccinated girls to drop drastically in the past two years.

‘The fact that journalism today focuses on conflict is a fundamental problem. Sometimes journalists’ attempt to create balance by presenting two opposing views can lead to the opposite, namely imbalance. Because sometimes one of the two is right’, he said. 

Media Training Is Important
Based on his own experience he gave the university researchers advice on how to communicate their knowledge in public. They need to undertake media training and practice making themselves understood, he said. Because participation in the media is a craft they can learn to master, he said.

In line with Søren Pind’s presentation, he also made it clear that science must open up, demonstrate transparency and uncertainty and allow itself to be criticised and peer-reviewed. Researchers also need to engage in dialogue with the media houses, which are lacking staff with deep insight into research.

Just as researchers are trained to form a greater part of the media world, they must be able to incorporate journalists into the world of research in order to create greater mutual understanding.

Watch the entire debate from the Jerne Auditorium

The riveting debate is far from over; it will continue this Friday at the People’s Meeting on Bornholm, where researchers and politicians discuss the future of Danish basic research. Read more about the event here 

SUND and the University of Copenhagen will be present throughout the People’s Meeting at a number of events. Watch films about the Faculty at the People’s Meeting and see the full programme here