The Bridge Between Science and Society: HSE University Hosts IV Russian Science Communication Forum
What challenges do science communicators face in Russia today? What lessons have they learned from the pandemic? Journalists, scholars, university staff and governmental representatives discussed issues regarding the popularization of science at the IV Russian Science Communication Forum. HSE University hosted the event for the first time.
HSE University welcomed forum participants to its building on Pokrovsky Boulevard, where it streamed a live broadcast of the event for viewers, as some speakers participated remotely. The University hosted the forum as last year’s Gran Prix winner in the Communications Lab award. The forum was organized in partnership with AKSON, the Association of Communicators in Education.
‘The forum has become an important tradition,’ said Alexandra Borisova, ex-president and co-founder of AKSON, in her welcoming remarks. ‘Science communication has never been so important. I hope that everyone will find the exchange of ideas here to be fruitful and make new acquaintances. Hopefully, we can meet next year in a different format.'
Plenary Session: Communicators and Researchers
The topic of the opening plenary session was ‘What Kind of Communication Does Science Need?’. The speakers discussed issues of current importance in the community and addressed the following questions: How do they evaluate the current situation in science communication? What challenges are faced by those who are building bridges between science and society today? What needs to be done so that the science communication infrastructure can properly respond to these challenges?
Elena Druzhinina, Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education, discussed the problems the ministry has had to address during the coronavirus era. She also outlined the global challenges faced by the academic community today. The minister emphasized challenges such as a longstanding lack of any systemic approach to science popularization; a lack of a core institution that can play this role; and ‘a certain passivity in terms of using new communication channels to convey information to consumers’.
According to Andrey Lavrov, HSE University Director for Public Relations, the main challenge facing the community today is bringing science communication from the niche sphere to a wider audience.
This year, we have clearly seen that the broad public attention is focused on scientific problems, and people’s lives and well-being depend on correct understanding and interpretation of these problems
As Andrey Lavrov emphasized, today, science communication is not only the communicator’s interpretation of a scientist’s research findings. ‘This is a narrow understanding of science communication. Today, we all need to think about providing bilateral science communications,’ said Mr. Lavrov. ‘Universities have learned to communicate their research results in a simple, attractive, clear and interesting way for audiences: this hurdle has been overtaken, but the next challenge for communicators is to teach scientists to be more aware of society’s demands and ensure opportunities for dialogue.’
Researchers also shared their perspective. Yulia Gorbunova, professor and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that a communicator’s main task is to persuade scientists that societal communication is necessary.
Yulia Gorbunova, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Chief Research Fellow at IGIC RAS and IPCE RAS
I have found four key arguments that help persuade a researcher that science communication is necessary. First, science popularization is essential for education: for children, students, and society at large. The problem is that there is an abundance of information today, but it is not always truthful and evidence-based. One of the important tasks is to explain basic things to the society, which can help maintain healthy living and explain what is happening: this is vital in the pandemic. The second argument is that internal scholarly communication is necessary: researchers often speak different languages, while research is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. I believe that communicators may help bring researchers together. The third reason is we need to talk to the authorities, to the ministries. The fourth is the international context under sanctions and the lack of positive attitude to our country.
Andrey Voronin, member of the Coordination Council for Youth Relations in Research and Education under the Presidential Council for Science and Education and Director of the MISIS Strategic Initiative Centre, talked about the state’s role in science communication and popularization.
‘I’ll speak as someone from a university. Students who come to university have a need to share in their DNA: via stories, Instagram, and Facebook. At the same time, they are very bright and interested. Our task is not to lose this momentum and find those who can help science communicators within the university. What can we do to develop science communication? I believe that our main task is not to be an obstacle to them. In recent years in Russia, we have seen a growing need amongst people to not only spend their time doing something fun, but something that is productive,’ Andrey Voronin said.
Ilya Ferapontov, editor-in-chief of N+1, an online popular science magazine, talked about how the situation has changed in science journalism over the last decade: ‘I remember that 10 to 12 years ago, when you needed comments from a Russian scientist, you needed to reach out to them somehow (and there were only a few of them), and most often, they would react negatively, even aggressively, to your attempts to clarify something or ask a question. The situation has changed dramatically today: we have a lot of projects and structures that help us to get the information on what is going on in Russian science.’ He also emphasized that the race for more and more press releases may lead to a decrease in the quality of information that science communicators are bringing to the public sphere.
Thematic Sessions: From Involvement in Research to New Formats of Communication
After the plenary session, the forum opened several sessions that focused on narrower topics. Speakers and guests discussed different aspects of science communication: from the problem of popularizing climate research to getting the public interested in science, to the relationship between medical professionals and journalists, to new formats of digital communications.
The roundtable discussion ‘Promoting Science. University Media Projects vs. Popular Science Media: Partners or Competitors?’ brought together representatives of university media and science-related journals.
Elena Menshikova, editor-in-chief of the ITMO NEWS website, answered the main question – why does a university need its own media? ‘For a university this is one more brand that ensures the promotion of the whole university; it broadcasts its expertise directly, without mass media participation. For our website, the mass media status gives us a right to legally participate in the media ecosystem with full rights.’
Tatyana Nebolsina, editor-in-chief of Za Nauku magazine, which has grown from the MIPT university newspaper, shared their most successful cases of popular science press releases. She believes that the best hits are those that become transformed in the public consciousness from research into myth.
One of the releases described how researchers synthesized a substance with cancer-fighting properties based on compounds extracted from parsley and dill seeds. The second was about the laser modelling of nuclear explosions to destroy asteroids. The third – the one that was reposted the most – was about physicists who turned back time with a quantum computer.
One of the releases described how researchers synthesized a substance with cancer-fighting properties based on compounds extracted from parsley and dill seeds. The second was about the laser modelling of nuclear explosions to destroy asteroids. The third – the one that was reposted the most – was about physicists who turned back time with a quantum computer
Daniil Kuznetsov, chief editor of IQ.HSE.RU, spoke about HSE University media’s mission: ‘IQ.HSE has a very important role within the university: we talk about our real research achievements. A specific feature of IQ.HSE is that the website had focused on the social sciences for a long time and mostly popularized papers by HSE researchers in this area and economics. That has made IQ.HSE unique, and we are aiming to maintain this uniqueness by promoting papers in the social sciences. But on the other hand, we need to demonstrate that HSE University also produces a lot of important research in the natural sciences, and we are trying to shift towards this area and use the tools we have to promote work in the natural sciences to a larger degree.’
The session ‘How to Raise Science Communicators and Journalists: Where to Find Them and What to Teach Them’ discussed the advantages and shortcomings of the existing educational systems in place for preparing future science communicators and science journalists, as well as market demands and opportunities for growth. Darya Denisova, Director of the ITMO University Centre of Science Communication, talked about Russia’s first master’s programme in science communication. Yulia Pozdnyakova, head of the Office for Science Popularization at the Siberian branch of RAS, shared her experience with teaching science journalism at MSU. ‘I teach third-year bachelor’s students who are familiar with genre theory and are capable writers, and my task is to tell them how to apply this knowledge to certain topics. The course is comprised of two blocks: in one, I offer practical classes: we take real papers and try to write science news pieces about them. In the other, I talk with the students about how science works as well as its various research methods.’
Gleb Cherkasov, Director of the Media Practices Centre at the HSE Institute of Communication Management, admitted that the main problem of education in media is that ‘today, media knowledge becomes outdated very fast.’ He therefore believes one should always continue learning. ‘Some things are permanent: they are like stones in the bed of a spring, which can help you wade across the river and avoid drowning. They undoubtedly include Russian language skills, personal contacts, a clear understanding of what you want to say and do, and, essentially, an understanding that science communication and science journalism are not independent of each other – they are part of the general information process.’
If we do not make scientific information accessible and relevant for everyone interested, I’m afraid that in a couple of decades, advocates of flat Earth and human evolution from aliens will be ravaging universities and kicking people out in the streets.
The hosts of IQ.HSE’s podcast ‘Vorona Na Provode’ conducted a special master class, where they recorded a meta podcast with Anton Pozdnyakov, founder of a popular science podcast about space, ‘Big Beard Theory’. The podcaster’s talk about creating a podcast will be featured in the next episode of ‘Vorona Na Provode’. Anton believes that podcasts in Russia still remain a niche product, though they are starting to gain momentum. For five years, he did it as a hobby, and then he started to make money off of his podcasts. ‘There are no particular secrets of success. I do what I like, and I talk only to the people I like’.
The forum concluded with award ceremonies of the Rusnano Russian Sci&Tech Writer of the Year and Communication Lab-2020. The National University of Science and Technology MISIS won the Gran Prix in the Communication Lab-2020 Award. The University will host the 5th Russian Science Communication Forum next year. Irkutsk Planetarium won the Minor Gran Prix. Mendeleyev UCTR won first place in the category ‘Participation Effect’ – for best promotion of scholars in media. RAS Institute of Applied Physics was awarded for the best practices in offline communications in the ‘Experiment’ category. St. Petersburg Polytechnic University placed first in the ‘Superfluidity’ category, which is awarded for effective management of one’s own communication channels. See here the full list of winners.
‘Once again, the forum has confirmed that the active and lively community of science communicators in Russia is developing,’ noted Olga Dobrovidova, senior copywriter of Skoltech press service and acting president of AKSON, at the end of the event. ‘The industry professionals are ready to share their best practices and address pressing problems together, and, year after year, the acknowledged leaders of the field – and HSE University is no exception – exceed expectations both in terms of the forum and the level of discourse.’