Brussels, 26 Oct 2005
Wolfgang Heckl is part of a rare breed - a leading scientist whose efforts to communicate his work to a wider audience have made him a household name in his native Germany and beyond.
As well as being a professor of experimental physics and nanosciences at the Ludwig Maximilians University and the head of Germany's largest museum, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Professor Heckl appears frequently on TV and radio and is regularly published in newspapers and magazines.
For these and other achievements, in 2004 Professor Heckl was awarded the EU Descartes Prize for science communication, which he shared with another leading figure in the popularisation of science, Sir David Attenborough. He will also be one of the keynote speakers at a Commission conference on 'communicating European research' in Brussels on 14 and 15 November.
Asked to share his secrets for successful science communication with CORDIS News, perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Heckl immediately switched the focus to the audience. 'You must take care of your audience,' he said. 'You have to communicate with them, rather than give them a lesson - that's why I never read from a pre-written text.'
It's important for scientists to respect the feelings of those they are trying to communicate with, he added. If people are concerned that a particular area of science may be dangerous, for instance, it is not enough to simply say 'trust me, I'm an expert'. What's more, whereas the scientific method aims to separate the scientist as a personality from their research, when it comes to communications Professor Heckl says that it is important to pay attention to the human element. 'I'm a physicist, but I'm also a person too,' he stressed.
Most importantly, however, communicators must find some element in their subject that will touch the soul of the audience. 'You have to find examples that will touch the audience on an emotional level, and make the science relevant to them and their lives,' he believes.
But as scientific research becomes more and more specialised, how can researchers effectively communicate a subject as complex as nanoscience to a general audience? 'Yes, on one level complexity is a challenge for us as the unseen quantum world, for example, is very difficult to explain. But equally, while explaining how a diesel motor works may be less complex than explaining the theory of self-assembling molecules or quantum cryptography, these ideas can be more fascinating and intriguing for people, which always wins,' argues Professor Heckl.
The real danger lies in underestimating your public, he believes. 'Don't assume the audience is stupid - admit that the world is complex and try to deal with it. Not everyone will understand everything you say - if they do, you have probably made it too simple - but hopefully people will go away motivated to learn more.' As a general rule of science communication, Professor Heckl believes that it is more important to ask questions of your audience than to try to give them all the answers.
When it comes to scientists themselves, Professor Heckl doesn't agree that they should all feel obliged to be effective communicators. Some individuals will always make their greatest contribution in the laboratory, and he believes they should be entitled to pursue their work as they see fit. 'We can't all be good communicators,' he says, 'but still, nowadays there should be more.'
But rather than preaching the argument that public funding of science places an obligation on researchers to communicate their work to citizens (although it may be true), Professor Heckl suggests trying to appeal to more 'selfish' concerns. 'In communicating your research, you will constantly hear new views on it from laypeople and experts alike which can give you new ideas and lead you in new directions,' he says. In the Professor's own experience, winning a high-profile award such as the Descartes Prize helped to give him credibility, making his job much easier, and he argues that giving greater recognition and incentives to other science communicators would help to raise the quality and impact of their efforts.
With his appearances on TV and radio and regular contributions to the national press in Germany, Professor Heckl has always favoured using a broad range of media to communicate science. 'All media have their advantages if used appropriately, and equally you can just as easily have bad TV as bad print. [...] The key is to adapt your style of communication to each, and by giving attention to all types of media you will be able to reach all kinds of audience,' he says.
Professor Heckl certainly considers the Deutsches Museum, of which he is head, as an effective medium for science communication, and when it comes to exploiting it fully, he and his team try to take advantage of the opportunities for interactive learning in its fullest sense. 'Our institution is both a museum and a science centre,' he says, 'and we have social scientists here who observe and try to learn from the interactions between experts and visitors. We are experimenting directly with science communications.'
When CORDIS News asked what he believes should be the ultimate goal of science communicaters, Professor Heckl replied: 'To contribute to a democratic society and the creation of 'responsible citizens'. This is not the only goal, of course, but if you ask me for the ultimate goal, this is it.'
Looking ahead to his conference speech in Brussels, and pondering what Europe can do to improve the quality of its science communications, Professor Heckl worries that there is no simple answer facing policy makers, as the issue is a complex one. 'Then again, you could argue that many of the points I have just made are already well known, but the key is you have do it, and science communicators could benefit from a little more help. They need education and incentives, and while not everyone can be a David Attenborough or a Carl Sagan, we need some in Europe,' he concluded.