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Siggen Circle

Siggen retreat 2016 – ‘A week for the future of science communication’

On 10–14 May 2016 we held an event to consider the future of science communication from an international and particularly a European perspective. We considered innovative visions for science communication and the most crucial questions about its future with a group of German and European science communicators.

A think tank for the future of science communication

The Siggen Circle was created as a think tank and driver of the ongoing development of science communication. In April of 2014, communication officials and managers, speakers, consultants, scientists and journalists met for the second time at the Siggen Estate in Holstein, Germany, without assignment or mandate from our respective institutions and with the assistance of the ZEIT Verlag and the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, to discuss topics and trends as well as upcoming and necessary changes in science communication. 

Guidelines for good science PR

Guidelines for good science PR

Discussions at the Siggen meetings about the quality of science communication led to the establishment of a working group focused on institutional science communication, or science PR. This broader group included not only members of the Siggen circle but also other members of the science communication community in Germany, especially press officers in scientific institutions and universities. The cross-institutional working group was organised by Wissenschaft im Dialog and the Bundesverband Hochschulkommunikation.

During development the draft guidelines were discussed at various conferences and the 'Guidelines for good science PR' were made public in April 2016. The guidelines were developed in the context of science communication in Germany. They highlight the growing responsibility of science PR for the quality of the public discussion on science and research, which is also relevant in an international context.

 Download the Guidelines for good science PR

The Siggen Call for Action 2014

The Siggen Call for Action – Shaping science communication

The Siggen Circle: Who are we?

The Siggen Circle was created as a think tank and driver of the ongoing development of science communication. In April of 2014, we met for the second time at the Siggen Estate in Holstein, Germany, without assignment or mandate from our respective institutions and with the assistance of the ZEIT Verlag and the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, to discuss topics and trends as well as upcoming and necessary changes in science communication. Our members work for universities and research institutes, scientific academies, administrations, funding institutions, initiatives, agencies, companies and editorial offices, as communication officials and managers, speakers, consultants, scientists and journalists. To promote shared interests in the field of science communications, we believe it is crucial to obtain an inter-institutional understanding and to coordinate our activities – knowing that our interests, motives and priorities may differ to some extent.

This position paper was drawn up jointly by the conference participants. Our hope is that it will help to facilitate changes in science communication in those areas where science and society meet and, at times, collide. We focus on the growing expectations of the general population and their effect on science communication.

Starting point

We live in a science society. Science shapes every area of our private and public lives. It is both the foundation and an instrument for political, economic and personal development and decisions. In the form of new technologies and procedures, scientific findings are making their way into society at an increasing pace and with increasing reach. At the same time, we are seeing a growing complexity and disciplinary differentiation in science, with heightened interconnectedness and cross-subject cooperation. To part of the general public, scientific correlations are becoming more and more difficult to understand – or rather, are not being explained in a comprehensible way. This makes it increasingly difficult to balance chances and risks and to identify potential areas of conflict. Science has a duty to explain itself.

While part of the population is being left behind in this process, others are developing a new and critical awareness of science. They want to have their say, be it as a blogger, with a letter to the editor or as a commentator on the web, in critical discussion forums, action groups, as citizen scientists or in crowd-funded science projects – the people can advance or prevent science, build up trust or withdraw it.

This development gives greater responsibility to science communication in the science society of today. 

Roles and actors

Scientists are the main players in science communication. They can and must communicate about science in a credible, authentic and technically accurate way. Their expertise and right of interpretation imply a special responsibility towards society.

Communicators are the managers of science communication. They prioritise and emphasise topics and moderate the dialogue process. They provide a space and opportunities for communication between the general population and scientists. They are the decision-makers in the scientific system, seismographs detecting societal developments relevant to science. They promote the further development of science communication and ensure the quality of their work on the basis of scientific findings and strategic concepts.

Journalists see themselves as advocates for the public. They observe, comment and judge both science itself and the quality of science communication.

The relationships between these main players in science communication are subject to constant and rapid changes. Oftentimes, science reaches the public directly and unfiltered. At the same time, the appraising voice of the media is growing weaker. The independent, competent transmission of scientific findings to the broader public is thus becoming more and more of a challenge.

For reasons of orientation and quality assurance, science needs science journalism and other, new intermediaries between itself and the public. Science communicators must now actively promote the establishment or new orientation of such intermediary organisations through a strategic process undertaken in cooperation with the other actors. As science communication is always linked to an institution, it cannot replace the external critical observation and monitoring of science that science journalism provides.

Structural changes in the scientific system

Due to its importance to society and public funding, science has an obligation to communicate. In other words, science communication is an integral part of scientific work. This implies training, promoting and appreciating communication skills in scientists and requires the following structural changes in scientific systems: 

Teaching scientists to communicate successfully is part of any scientific education and must be firmly established in the curriculum. Further education in communication should be offered as part of human resources development at universities and research institutes.

At the same time, communication plays an important role in promoting science. Universities, research institutes and funding institutions all need to provide the necessary structures and resources. Scientists who engage in dialogue with the public deserve special support and appreciation. This should also be expressed by objectively rewarding a scientist’s communicative performance in terms of remuneration and incentives. 

Scientists’ most important partners in the field of communication are the communication managers at their universities and research institutes, who provide useful contacts and can guide and advise the scientists as concerns their methods or strategy. As mediators between the scientific world, the general public and the institute, they must ensure that the highest professional standards are maintained, while also serving on their institution’s decision-making bodies. 

Quality in science communication

There are high expectations aimed not only at scientists and the scientific system, but also at science communication itself:

The work of science communication is value-guided and strategic. Its processes and products are shaped according to pre-defined quality criteria. These criteria are based on discussions of values, research-based insights and practical experience. Whether quality standards will be able to gain acceptance in science communication will depend on the extent to which scientific institutions are committed to upholding them. 

To expand the empirical knowledge base, science communication itself needs to be researched more closely. Findings must be documented and made available to the general public. Quality criteria must be applied on an ongoing basis, and tested and refined through hands-on work on the ground, with scientific communicators relying on both their own expertise and outside contributions.

The job description of a scientific communicator must be systematically defined and honed. A continuing and professional education as well as further training is a matter of course for science communicators from all fields.

Science is international and reaches across the boundaries of disciplines and institutions, and the same is true for the topics, trends and challenges relating to science communication. Science communication needs a better international network in order to learn from example cases and to collectively discuss and develop international standards.

Science in society 

Science is developing in an ever faster and more complex way. New scientific developments are breaking into our everyday lives. These developments need to be explained and members of the public need to be able to share their feedback.

At the same time, environmental and societal developments are making new demands on science. More and more often, scientific expertise and innovation are needed to cope with the major challenges facing society. Science is called upon to develop fundamental principles and outline possible scenarios and courses of action.

The people and their democratically elected representatives and decision-makers at the regional, national and international levels are, to a certain extent, forced to place their trust in science. This results in the following consequences for science communication:

From an early point, the general population should be involved in scientific developments and empowered to participate in fact-based discussions. To achieve this, science communication should facilitate dialogue through which the people can voice their opinions, give advice and get involved in decision-making processes. This will prevent token gestures of discussions and highlight the possibilities and limits of the people’s influence.

One of the important tasks of science communication is to make the possible courses of action that have been developed through the scientific community’s recommendations to the political and social sphere accessible and comprehensible by the general public.

15 years after the PUSH memorandum, we are publishing this Siggen Call for Action to mark the transition in science communication that has taken place to date, and to highlight the new challenges of today. 15 years back, the issue was obvious: attracting qualified young talent and generating enthusiasm for the sciences were – and continue to be – important tasks for science communication. Now, we need and want to engage the people in the advancement of science. We want to:

  • explain science, to make it understandable;
  • strengthen the people and their role in science communication;
  • facilitate knowledgeable dialogue with the general population, the results of which the scientific world must recognise as valuable feedback;
  • train and motivate scientists as the key actors for science communication in that dialogue process;
  • define and hone high standards for science communication managers; and
  • achieve strategic cooperation amongst all players involved in science communication.

Discussion paper

Discussion paper: Guidelines for good science communication

Science communication occurs wherever science and society meet. Communicators realise that they are not only addressing science journalists. Through the Internet and social media, at events and exhibitions, they find themselves having more and more direct contact with the people. This increases the responsibility of science communication, in terms of the quality of the information and services it provides.

Good science communication will boost understanding and respect for each actor’s position. It can and should promote the importance and the methods of science, and introduce the various scientific cultures. Conversely, it should also convey the people’s questions, needs and sentiments, and, at times, also their fears and reservations, back to the scientific world and its decision-making bodies. In short, it should provide a forum for dialogue.

Good science communication takes the abundance of available scientific data and underscores the points that are most relevant to the people, avoiding any unnecessary or ineffective activities. It uses criteria that are as objective as possible to filter this information, instead of being guided by self-interest.

Good science communication stays true to the facts. It neither exaggerates its presentation of research success stories nor does it trivialise or withhold any risks of which it is aware in respect of new technologies. It clearly defines the limits to its statements. It also provides transparency concerning the publishing body’s interests and financial interdependencies. It names its sources and contacts. It answers the question of the importance of the information to science and society and puts it into perspective against the current state of research. It does not stray from factual accuracy and transparency for reasons of institutional marketing or image building.

Good science communication takes care to prepare and disseminate information in keeping with its target group, using the instruments and channels that are best suited for the task, as well as language that its audience will be able to understand.

The people’s interest is not limited to the facts alone. To promote science, good science communication also needs to tell the stories behind the science: its protagonists, their everyday lives and their environment. It gives the people a means of identifying with scientists. Good science communication allows scientists to talk about themselves, their motivations and their work.

Good science communication is self-reflective and self-critical. It works in a value-guided and strategic way and defines standards for the quality of its work and its results. It monitors the fulfilment of these criteria and is open to their adjustment based on established feedback processes. 

Good science communication is open to changes in society and continuously adapts its strategies and activities on the basis of societal values. With this in mind, it seeks to exchange and cooperate with other communicators, scientists, journalists and members of the general public. It applies national and international discourse on practices and research in science communication to its work. It promotes exchanges and cooperation between institutions and dialogue with stakeholders.

This discussion paper is part of the Siggen Call for Action (2014). Its content is based on the joint work conducted at the Siggen Estate in 2013 and 2014.

With this call for action, we want to apply the current findings and assumptions of the Siggen Circle and other forums to the practice of science communication through an established set of guidelines.

This paper does not claim to be comprehensive. It was prepared in the interest of its discussion at the meetings of the various science communication committees and the research community and should be supplemented and adapted as needed. Its practicality in everyday life will have to be proved. The guidelines should be reviewed on a regular basis and continuously refined to meet the changing requirements of society, science and science communication.

The Siggen Impulse 2013

The Siggen Impulse for the future of science communication

The Siggen Circle was created as a think tank for the future of science communication. In July 2013, our members met for five days at the Siggen Estate in Holstein, Germany, with no assignment or mandate from our respective institutions, at the initiative of the ZEIT Verlag and at the invitation of the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, to discuss the central topics and trends, opportunities and challenges facing science communication today. Our members work for universities and research institutes, scientific academies, administrations, funding institutions, initiatives, agencies, companies and editorial offices, as communication officials, speakers, scientists and journalists. To promote shared interests in the field of science communications, we believe it is crucial to obtain inter-institutional understanding and to coordinate our activities – knowing that our interests, motives and priorities may differ to some extent.

This position paper is a joint publication, the aim of which is to provide inspiration for science communication in those areas where science and society meet and, at times, collide. 

Science and public communication

Science drives change in all areas of public and private life. At the same time, it provides the knowledge needed to evaluate and assess such change.

Science communication can share societally relevant knowledge with a broad audience, explaining it in a non-technical way. A prerequisite for this is critical public discussion, which allows society to form realistic expectations of science. In order to reach this goal, communication about scientific processes must be guided by the values transparency and integrity. 

Position of science communication

  • Science communication is now well-established in Germany. Its role is recognised as an increasingly important one, both for science itself and for the general public.
  • Science communication is becoming ever more involved in preparing scientific findings and expertise that will be used as crucial foundations for political decisions.
  • Science communication has become professionalised and diversified. In addition to reporting on research and facilitating dialogue with the public, it now includes fields such as marketing and communication consulting. The individual actors in the domain are facing growing competition for reputations, funding and influence. Communicating scientific findings is complemented by political communication as well as profile building and institutional positioning.
  • The number of actors involved in science communication has increased considerably. With the diversification of the scientific system, which has seen research associations, centres of excellence, research institutes and collaborative research centres actively engageing in communication, new roles have emerged for communicators. These stakeholder interactions in interconnected scientific systems are becoming more and more complex and may lead to conflicts of interest that will merit further reflection.
  • Our target audiences and the ways in which they communicate are changing. Many people no longer see themselves merely as recipients but also as active transmitters in the communication process: interactive communication and dialogue with the public, not to mention the demand for transparency, are all gaining in importance.
  • Science communication takes place across many different formats and channels. It can unlock new audiences (e.g. via YouTube, apps, science slams, participatory formats and MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses).
  • Through social media, scientists have the opportunity to address the public directly. Yet many of them hesitate to take that direct approach, and there are still only a small number of scientists currently seeking the support of their communication departments in order to build, expand and professionalise their communication skills. To change this pattern, communication departments should provide motivation and support. In doing so, it is important to remain respectful of science and its inherent logic and culture.
  • Overall, people feel that there is an overabundance of communication activities. Without differentiated communication that targets a specific audience and applies clear priorities, the quality and credibility of science communication are in danger. Critical self-reflection, the development of strategies, and an intelligent division of tasks in the light of a scarcity of resources may help reach a better balance between research communication and image building. In this process, it is important to establish better coordination between the individual groups of participants, to optimise the impact of science communication.
  • The role of the media as an evaluative, contextualising body is weakening. In particular, high-quality science journalism is at risk of being marginalised by the current structural change from traditional media towards digitalisation. At the same time, new opportunities are arising. Science can contribute to the development of new platforms, formats and forms for dialogue amongst a fragmented public (community involvement, crowd-funded science, journalists as publishers, involvement of freelance journalists, remote journalism, journalists in residence, etc.). Science communication can take on a supporting role in the public communication of changes in respect of which society and journalism are dependent on scientific expertise.
  • The reputation of science is under threat as a result of scientific misconduct and the economisation and business-orientation of science communication (making everything into an event, star culture, inappropriate advertising, etc.). One of the crucial tasks facing today’s science communication is to counteract a loss of faith in science by frankly identifying undesirable developments and providing room for self-reflection by actors with varying interests.
  • Thus far, science communication in Germany seems to have received little international attention and possesses insufficient international ties. Over the coming years, scientific communicators should work to proactively engage with European and international networks, examine external best Ppractices for their viability in the German context, develop exemplary international projects and communicate more actively about developments via networks and the media.

Values

We believe these to be the core values of science communication:

  • Truthfulness and credibility
  • Benefit for society
  • Transparency
  • Willingness of the scientific world to engage in an active dialogue with society
  • Self-criticism and willingness to change
  • Independence
  • Openness to cooperation of all those involved

We believe in the importance of a Science communication Charter – a set of guidelines signed by as many concerned stakeholders as possible, particularly institutions in the scientific system – and hope to participate in its construction.

The Charter should set down the basic principles for science communication, thereby:

  • raising awareness and respect for the work cultures of the various actors (scientists, journalists, scientific communicators and scientific organisations);
  • raising awareness of the effects of communication on research and findings;
  • establishing a standard of transparency in terms of the background to research (financing, personnel, motivation and goals); and
  • promoting cross-institutional cooperation between scientific actors.

The Siggen Circle, August 2013

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