EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Today’s doctoral candidates need training to communicate science in the public eye

Communication training for doctoral candidates is vital due to new societal trends that make communication more important for scientists. For Gian-Andri Casutt, strengthening training programmes is crucial for the effective integration of science into society.

Until the post-war period, the general public did not relate much to scientists. Scientists were seen as intellectual geniuses, often a bit mad, nerds with books or in laboratories. They developed atomic energy or bombs, explored space, wrote intellectual books or worked with flies in laboratories. The symbol was Albert Einstein, the image of the mad and unwordly professor was everywhere like in Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb or in films like Frankenstein or The Fly.

This has changed radically in the last 20 years. Science is in the public eye. People are interested in science, want to be informed and many are sceptical about it. Taxpayers fund research and want to have something to say about it in return. Therefore, one of the most important skills for future scientists today is to communicate with the public and to understand the mechanisms of the media and mechanisms of politics.

Social media, in particular, has caused a great deal of change over the last 10 years. Whereas in the past it was mainly the communication departments that disseminated scientific information, it is often the various social media channels that are used to discuss content. This means that the communication departments themselves have much less control over what stories are circulated and how the story is told.

Social media, or Web 2.0, has made it possible for everyone to express themselves on all channels: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, Tiktok, and so on. This has led to a flood of information that is now available to everyone, made it more difficult to navigate and ushered in the age of misinformation and disinformation. Scientists have to find their way through this noise, so communication training has to be broad and include media work, social media, public speaking, writing for the general public, understanding of media, social media, society and politics, and so on.

How can universities support doctoral candidates as communicators?

Nowadays, a university communication department’s main task is to advise and support academics in their communication. This means that more and more universities are offering courses in communication. This is also necessary in order to better integrate the university into society in the future.

Participation in panel discussions is no longer the only way of interacting with society, but there are many different channels. Researchers have blogs, use social media and, if they are successful in promoting their topic or research, they continue to be interviewed by traditional newspapers and are present both digitally and in print. Once their presence is strengthened, many are effective and are heard by politicians, but also by their peers and colleagues. Currently, climate scientists are very active. This enables them to take on an important and relatively new role: scientific policy advice. The Covid-19 pandemic has given this a boost.

What are the key megatrends shaping science communication?

A number of megatrends are behind the growing importance of communication in science. On the one hand, society wants to be informed transparently and governance is becoming increasingly important in business, politics and society. The old scientific system with all-powerful professors who could do whatever they want has had its day. Society today has a much higher demand for governance and ethics than in the past.

The second megatrend, digitalisation has ensured that we have entered a knowledge society in which knowledge (created by scientists) is important for economic and personal development. This has been driven by digitalisation, which with the internet (especially through sites such as Wikipedia) has made knowledge more accessible to all.

The third element is reforms under the Bologna Process, which has made the scientific and higher education landscape more homogeneous and thus also strengthened a competitive system. Universities have to be internationally attractive and engage in communication and marketing in order to reach the students and researchers they want.

In addition to these broader megatrends, the pandemic also contributed. Suddenly science and explaining science were on every channel. We saw the importance of explaining how a virus works, how epidemics develop and how we can protect ourselves. But we also saw how many people, including many politicians, do not understand how science works and how sceptical they are. Since they are our donors and payers, we need to improve our communication.

The skillset of future scientists

Communication is therefore becoming an increasingly important part of the skillset of future scientists, so it is important that doctoral schools together with the communication department start to strengthen their training courses. This is the only way to bring science closer to society and to facilitate this exchange for researchers. As mentioned at the beginning, society demands this exchange, and it needs training and understanding of the mechanisms to make this dialogue fruitful for both sides. This will be an important step towards making science an important and integrated part of society and no longer be seen as a bunch of nerds in labs with messy hairstyles.

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Gian-Andri Casutt

Gian-Andri Casutt is Head of Communications at the ETH Board in Switzerland and President of the European Association of Communication Professionals in Higher Education (EUPRIO). He is an expert in strategic science policy, administration, and communication with more than 20 years of experience. As Head of Communications and Public Affairs at the ETH Board he is responsible for communications with politics and society for the ETH Domain with its institutions ETH Zurich, EPFL, WSL, PSI, Empa and Eawag. Previously, he was Head of Communication and Marketing at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is a lecturer in university further education and teaches science communication. Gian-Andri Casutt holds a Master’s degree in Contemporary History, Journalism and Communication from the University of Fribourg, a postgraduate degree in Strategic Marketing as well as a degree in Business Finance from IMD Business School in Lausanne.