Scientists learn how to tell the story of their projects to gain trust, speed acceptance and increase impact

June 26, 2006

Brussels, 23 Jun 2006

It is widely recognised that it takes decades for the impact of investment in science and technology (S&T) for solving problems to become evident in policy. Most of the time, the project duration is too short to produce highly visible impacts.

But when the research concerns urgent matters such as the dwindling supply of water, there is a real need to speed up the impact process. A recent report commissioned by the EU's International S&T Cooperation Programme (EU-INCO) on its water research projects noted that trust, perceived relevance and ability to communicate are key prior conditions for a project's impact. Awareness of these factors, the report says, can help researchers become more effective in the way they address the non-scientific public and communicate their results outside scientific journals and conferences.

Raising awareness about the importance of effective communication was the objective of a workshop which took place in Brussels on 21 June. It brought together some 60 project coordinators from INCO funded research projects addressing integrated water resources management (IWRM), and looked at some of the communication tools needed in order to ensure that researchers engage constructively with the mindsets of water users, water managers, practitioners and the water policy community.

At one session dedicated to 'dealing with Media', Martin Ince, a freelance science journalist and science communicator, led participants through a number of exercises to help them better disseminate their results. In one exercise, participants were asked to describe their project in only one sentence, in a SMS text style, while another exercise saw researchers taking on the role of journalists and interviewing one another. The aim of these exercises being to help researchers use more concise and simple language when conveying their work to non-academics.

'Scientists can communicate perfectly to their professional colleagues,' Mr Ince told CORDIS News. But there are other audiences with whom researchers have a more difficult time communicating, namely those involved in political processes and in relevant policy-making institutions, such as in the water sector. This target audience is particularly important if research is to result in sustainable water management.

'Perhaps more interesting, a lot is said about communicating with the public - if you believe in the existence of one public,' said Mr Ince. In the case of the INCO water research projects, the public are those who drink water, who have farms, who are in a way the users of the research. 'They are not just the public in some abstract sense, they're the people whose lives are affected by the research.'

'Scientists find it difficult to communicate to these groups, partly because in the past, it hasn't been a priority and, partly because some of the projects are located in countries where the media is by no means as free to say things as it is in Europe,' said Mr Ince. 'It's also because communications hasn't been a field they have been required to pay attention to. They haven't really seen that there is much benefit in it.'

However, the days of scientists working in isolation in their laboratories are over. 'In most countries in Europe, it's becoming increasingly a priority for scientists to communicate their research. I don't believe it's reached that level yet in the developing countries.' Given that INCO water research projects involve partners from the EU and other countries, Mr Ince believes that workshops like these are useful in helping the spread of good practice.

Indeed, a lot could be learnt from Felicita Scapini of the University of Florence, Italy, one of the participants in the workshop. She is the project coordinator of Water in Demand (WADI), an INCO funded project aimed at encouraging participatory approaches for the sustainable use of fresh water resources in the Mediterranean coastal areas with freshwater scarcity. The project conducts research and dissemination activities in six study sites located in coastal areas across the Mediterranean, both in the North and South. It is the third successive project undertaken by the partners.

Unlike the first two projects, WADI partners decided to contact key stakeholders at the chosen sites at the very beginning, inviting them to collaborate in the project by providing the necessary information on water supply, uses and demand. 'We decided to make communications a more explicit part of the WADI project,' Ms Scapini explained. She noticed that when the local authorities were not involved at the beginning, they were uninterested in the end results of the project. 'When we go to a place to conduct research we need to be in contact anyway with local authorities and ministries to get permits, and we need to explain to them why we are there. We felt it was a better strategy to engage with them from the very beginning and then produce something that would be useful to them.'

WADI also engages with the local population, especially those that are not always well represented, namely women and children. Nefza, one the project's study sites, is a small town in the north-west of Tunisia, situated 15 kilometres from a coastal area that is suffering from erosion. There, the project partners carried out educational games and activities with the local primary school pupils. 'We took the children to the beach to show them that it is a live ecosystem with animals and plants, and that the environment that they live in is very rich,' explained Ms Scapini. The impact was very positive, she said. 'We received feedback from the teachers that the children had got the message. They went home and talked about the activities in their families.' The WADI partners intend to repeat the activity in their Morocco site.

Back at in Italy, close to another of the project's study sites, the partners decided to organise an exhibition on the Mediterranean environment in a museum in Florence. 'The Mediterranean is a unique story: all the countries in the region have the same environmental problems like the lack of water and beach erosion,' said Ms Scapini. Targeting tourists and Florentines, the partners put together a pictorial slideshow and a set of panels in English and Italian describing some of the problems facing the region. 'Our aim was to make tourists and citizens alike aware of the natural cultural heritage and the importance of science as a link. Because when there are socio-political problems around the Mediterranean, science has always helped,' she said. Over a period of a week, the exhibition attracted some 300 visitors. Encouraged by the interest shown by the public, the project partners intend to ship the exhibition to Malta.

Another participant at the workshop was Sylvana Gayoso of the University of southern Chile. She is one of the partners in EPIC FORCE, an INCO project that focuses on improving the impact of forest management on river basin responses with regard to water flow and soil erosion during extreme rainfall. This is an area in which there is considerable scientific uncertainty as well as poorly conceived policy. 'One of our target groups is the public sector and we think we have reached our goal because some recommendations we made about buffer zone management have been taken up by policymakers,' said Ms Gayoso. These recommendations have been integrated into legislation which is currently under review in Chilean Parliament and due for adoption in the coming months.

Asked how the partners succeeded in getting the policymakers on board, Ms Gayoso told CORDIS News that being widely published in scientific journals and having a presence on the Internet had been very useful. 'We are a recognised scientific institution in Chile so when the agricultural ministry started to look at buffer zones for rivers, the first work they read was ours. And they decided that our work on river buffer zone management was the best solution for the Chile context.'

But to reach the other users of the research, such as farmers and forest managers, Ms Gayoso believes that a greater 'non-scientific' communication dimension is needed: 'This is a problem for us because in the universities, there are no funds to publish work in a non-scientific magazines and communicate results in a alternative ways, so scientists always opt for scientific journals in order to improve their career paths.'

This is where INCO funds come in. 'Programmes like these which allocate funds to the communication dimension of a project offer us the opportunity to show to a larger audience what we are doing,' explained Ms Gayoso.

In a recent review of the INCO funded project on integrated water resources management (IWRM), a panel of experts recommended that the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) should take greater heed of the need for increased funds for improved communication between scientists and socio-economic groups. However, this should come at no cost to the science devoted to these ecological and environmental issues.

Information about all INCO water research initiatives

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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