7 October 2019

A New Path for Research Dissemination?

Research Dissemination

Professor Oluf Borbye Pedersen from the Novo Nordic Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, is once again pushing the boundaries for research dissemination. Hear how Oluf thinks innovative and why it is important that researchers communicate with the outside world.

Oluf Borbye

Together with science journalist Kristian Sjøgren, you are ready with a book called 'Magtfulde Mikrober' with the subtitle – 'Hvad videnskaben ved om dine skytsengle og dæmoner' (Powerful Microbes  What science knows about your guardian angels and demons). Why is this book a breakthrough within research dissemination?

It is a book written for ordinary people. It is not about microbiology in the classical sense, but it is divided into 20 short stories with cliff hangers and written in a language that has a broad appeal. Here, I talk about what international science currently knows about the health-promoting collectives of microbes that are an essential part of all of us.
The book focuses on how our health is shaped by the complex communities of bacteria, archaea, fungi, bacteriophages and viruses on the skin and in all the human cavities, including the digestive tract, respiratory tract and vagina. When they are out of balance, it seems to increase the risk of developing a variety of common diseases such as asthma, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, anorexia, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease and many of the other common diseases we are afflicted with in our lives.

Can You Explain the Dissemination in Your Book?
The dissemination is experimental because it balances between a literary short story form and traditional popular science. Many of my stories are based on everyday life, e.g. in the encounter and dialogue with a curious upper secondary school class, with the person sitting next to you at a dinner party, two taxi drivers, a young researcher, a professor colleague and a cyclist on the S-train who recognises me from a talk show. The dissemination of knowledge in the book is interrupted by more reflective sections, in which I share my thoughts on how the microbiome knowledge that is currently being generated will radically change our view of each other and of us as human beings.
The purpose of the short story collection is to tell the reader about the latest microbiome research in a playful manner and to make the reader reflect on his or her invisible and, to laypersons, unknown billions of personal guardian angels and demons. Who are they? And what do they do to me? At the same time, we want to puncture many of the myths and unrealistic expectations that many people have for the research field even though it is only about 10 years old.
Why Should Researchers Engage in Research Dissemination?
I doubt whether it is relevant to tell the public what is going on in all disciplines of basic and applied research. However, some research disciplines, including new realisations within health science, are often met with a great deal of public interest. It is knowledge that many health researchers would like to share with the public without compromising on either the substance, the quality or the necessary reservations. But it is far from straightforward.
Which Challenges Do You Meet as a Communicator?
I would like to highlight two issues that make it demanding: something about having the courage to go against the prejudice of colleagues, and a little about what health science is and is not. To go from the nerdy information maintenance for society's elite to diving into popular communication on a broad spectrum. That takes courage.
There are many prejudices about dissemination, especially among scientists. When communicating to e.g. the newspaper Weekendavisen, you are met with respect from the colleagues. On the contrary, when the scientific facts hit the front page of BT and Ekstrabladet, you often encounter scepticism and displeasure from colleagues. But what matters is not whether the message comes out as a pixie book article in the tabloid press or as a dialectical 2-page article in Politiken.
What is crucial is that the message is conveyed correctly, is received and understood by many groups in the population. If it is not understood, the recipient – regardless of background – cannot relate critically to the scientific conclusion.
The second issue is to get the recipients to understand the nature of health science, its limitations and relativity. That scientific results are rarely black and white and long-lasting. That statistical hypothesis testing is based on the null hypothesis. That science is actually about confirming the null hypothesis. And then, when once in a while, it is possible to dismiss the null hypothesis and to corroborate a divergent scientific hypothesis, yes, then it usually only has a probability value. It is not an absolute scientific truth with an infinite lifetime. It is actually just what we know right at this moment.
In addition, it requires constant training to change from the scientific syntax which we use in scientific literature, to using popular word pictures and language rhythms that illustrate the scientific complexity rather well.
Why is Dissemination Important?
By failing to tell the general public about the nature and limitations of health science and its infinite value to public health, we run the significant risk of people saying, 'Science – why do we need that? We are just getting confused at a higher level. One day you hear one thing and the next day another'. And then, the indifference to scientific information spreads. In this way, the breeding ground is laid for myth formation and fake science.
The book is written together with science journalist Kristian Sjøgren and will be published on 8 October at 'Politikens Forlag'. The book has 310 pages, and its title is 'Powerful Microbes'. It is adorned with original artwork by Tea Bendix.