Follow up article to recently published ‘Collaborate or Commiserate’
ATSE Article: http://www.atse.org.au/Documents/Publications/Focus/2013/Focus%20176.pdf
Communication skills have always been part of the successful researchers’ inventory of skills. Surely a Nobel Prize has never been awarded to someone not able to convey the science and the importance of it. Surely Galvani and Volta had exquisite powers of persuasion at their disposal as they jousted for intellectual supremacy in the burgeoning field of electromaterials science some two centuries ago.
What has changed dramatically, however, in particular over the past two decades, is the demand, the necessity, to communicate research across a broader spectrum of the societies we live in, using an amazing array of communication tools.
Communicating with fellow scientists in your own discipline, your own area of expertise, is a dawdle for most !
Now we must go beyond that and be able to clearly articulate often complex multidimensional challenges to others in disparate areas of science and technology. Then, we must be able to understand the contribution each can make in overcoming the challenge. Throughout the research journey we will encounter others to whom our current findings and future goals must be communicated using less technical language, allowing them to capture the vision of the research This is necessary to ensure effective use of the knowledge gained in future research or translation to practical devices, and is critical to securing ongoing support in terms of the resources needed.
This ability to communicate across the traditional boundaries between scientists, engineers and end-users is essential to building effective collaborative research teams. Building a common language takes time, so interdisciplinary communication is not for the faint-hearted.
There are a number of practical steps that can be taken to sharpen interdisciplinary communication skills. They are:
- Workshops on common topics of interest.
- Preparation of research proposals together.
- Preparation of manuscripts.
- Presentations on behalf of the team.
- Reading reports and commentaries from other disciplines.
To ensure maximum benefit, engagement and not just involvement is required; taking lots of questions giving lots of answers.
As an example, we are currently engaged in the development of a brain implant for epilepsy detection and control. This has required continuous formulation and refinement of the vision, bringing together knowledge of the clinical need with what might be developed from advances in materials science. With the destination in mind, a team comprising individuals from areas such as electrode design and manufacture, biology, neuroscience, physiology, materials science and electronics engineering, and those with the appropriate clinical expertise, has been assembled – just to start the journey.
With bold, ambitious projects such as this, communication with various stakeholders in the commercial sector and government is necessary on an on-going basis to secure and maintain resources.
Communication with the Commercial Sector
Relationships between researchers and the commercial sector have been a testing frontier. While robust partnerships should be driving knowledge generation and innovation, the reality is that all too often the relationship is clunky and ineffective. Many organisations keen to be seen to be doing the right thing embraced “commercial opportunities” only to be hindered by road blocks, nothing more than bureaucratic check points. This has not facilitated open and productive communication between researchers and the commercial world.
The main reason for this is an inability to communicate in the same language. Some modern researchers shy away from the prospect of commercial engagement, having wasted inordinate amounts of time dealing with those who “don’t need to know research to sell it. For those seeking to be a link between researchers and the commercial world, the ability to learn the language of science, even just to understand the basic concepts, is critical.
Likewise, if researchers want effective communication with the commercial sector, there are no short cuts. They must become engaged, and can not leave it to someone else. We need to listen to and learn what end-users want and figure out how to deliver it. We need to communicate in their language.
This generation of scientific researchers are the most effective communicators ever, with a diverse array of communication tools available, so there is no reason we cannot achieve great things in this area.
Practical steps can be taken to facilitate communication with end-users and the commercial sector. These include:
- Target industries that will be able to technically assist your research and will be receptive to the knowledge you have and can create.
- Attend industry events and listen.
- Volunteer your time to visit industry and talk.
- Set up meetings with industry at international conferences.
- Stay up-to-date with the factors that drive commercial interests, and be responsive to their quickly changing needs.
- Become very familiar with the various funding opportunities that support commercial engagement
Building strong and meaningful professional and commercial sector engagement will require communication on the global stage.
Being based in Australia, this is a particular challenge. The tyranny of distance is real. While this has been alleviated to some extent in recent years by ongoing advances in communication tools like video links, Skype and mobile phones, being one of the most isolated countries on earth still has some challenges.
Nothing replaces face-to-face engagement, particularly in research. Whole body (3D) communication does not translate well to a 2D screen, and there are extra dimensions to face-to-face engagement that for now do not transmit well through our communications conduits. The development of a common vision and strategy requires lots of give and take, the refinement of ideas and, most importantly, building trust. Scientific reputations are based on trust and integrity. Lots of talking and even more listening.
Communicating in different countries brings special challenges and opportunities – many require much patience given the layers of organisational involvement needed to secure collaborative arrangements.
Practical steps to facilitate global communications include:
- Give webinars (online seminars) – build a following.
- Use social media creatively.
- Target countries where your knowledge can make a difference.
- Target international companies where a partnership could be mutually beneficial.
- Keep a suitcase packed.
The Community – The Lay Person
Eventually we all must communicate effectively with the community we work for: the paymaster, the gate keeper, the tax payer.
We need to communicate with the general community at all levels, including the lay person, the business person, the regulator and the politician in order to translate knowledge into technological advances in an efficient manner, and ultimately to maximise impact !
Inevitably for most of us in research this is our employer – the tax payer. The rate of advancement of science and technology and the quest to engage the community in the importance of research means that this level of communication is perhaps the most critical. Promoting research to the general public gives back to the community and engenders its support for the work we are engaged in. Ultimately, community opinion will influence the decision makers on where to allocate the tax dollars which allows us to do research. As with all levels of communication there is room for innovation – creative ways to communicate advances and engage our communities.
Practical steps for Community Communication
- Community workshops.
- Social media including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc.
- Community sponsored prize(s).
- Create occasions / events to thank and engage the community.
- Where possible, keep your lab door open to visitors.
Communicating with the Media
We must also be able to communicate across the growing number of “media” platforms now available. The traditional methods of just publishing a paper, going to a conference and the odd media report just will not cut it anymore. The need for more frequent communications across all stages has also increased. Gone are the days (not so long ago) where communicating findings 3 or 4 times a year was deemed acceptable. Now the 24-hour news cycle demands information, web sites must be updated daily and tweets issued on the hour. The “hungry beast” that is media demands to be fed, but this also opens up new fronts on which to spread our messages.
Practical steps – Communicating with the Media
- Know what the media needs – they want a good story that taps into the needs, desires, concerns and interests of the average person, so learn how to bridge the gap between fundamental science and the general public by crafting a compelling narrative that describes what your work is, what its goals are, and the path to get there.
- Plain speaking does not mean dumbing down or oversimplification. Science stories don’t make sense without the science but learn to be clear and concise with your message. A jumble of acronyms and jargon won’t help.
- Visualise – can your research be presented graphically by using a timeline, graphics, animations or bite-size chunks of data? Digital media platforms love a clickable graphic, an interactive chart, or some other form of visualisation that keeps a reader on a page longer.
- Work with media people to craft and shape the story for accuracy and depth. Journalists are also in the business of reviewing literature, gathering data and interpreting it for conclusions – they want to get it right too!
- Don’t fear controversy – you can’t bury your head in the sand and hope a sensitive topic goes away, nor can you simply brush off community concerns, via the media, as backwards-thinking nonsense. Be part of the conversation. The more facts, scientists and opinion leaders there are in the public domain the more likely someone will listen.
In summary, the expectations for scientific researchers to effectively communicate is real and growing. This needs to be considered and be an integral part of the skills inventory of a successful researcher. Scientific researchers need to communicate across multiple areas of society using a diverse array of tools available. As such, training and resources need to be invested into this critical area.
It is never just been about new discoveries. The communication skills needed to implement discoveries are critical.
-Professor Gordon Wallace, Australian Laureate Fellow, Executive Research Director ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, University of Wollongong.
-Grant Reynolds, Communications Officer, ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, University of Wollongong
-Cameron Ferris, Ernst and Young (formerly Associate Strategic Development Officer, ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, University of Wollongong)
You can follow @GordonGWallace on Twitter