THE World Reputation Rankings 2019: the dizzying effect of spin

The desire to attract good publicity causes universities to oversell their achievements, damaging public trust in science, says Peter Weingart

July 16, 2019
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In February, the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung announced a “world sensation” – the discovery of a blood test for breast cancer. The jubilation subsided quickly when it was revealed that the announcement was part of a PR campaign for a start-up spawned by the University of Heidelberg that was to market the new test.

Criticism was launched against the gynaecological clinic and the start-up for not having gone through the usual academic process of peer review and publication in a scientific journal before going public. The media discovered more unsavoury details: the press conference had been engineered by a PR company at the price of €80,000 (£70,000), while the investor behind the start-up turned out to be a businessman who had previously been convicted of bribery and who had close ties to a former editor of Bild-Zeitung . A legal investigation has opened, and the university management fears that it could cost the institution its place in Germany’s excellence initiative, which is up for review this summer.

The case is an extreme one, yet it is not unique. On the contrary, such events are on an upward trend across the whole system. Related incidents include: the growing number of retractions in scientific journals reflecting hasty publication of results not sufficiently tested; the surge in research fraud committed by scientists and – in response – an increasing number of commissions or agencies for scientific integrity. If that is not evidence enough, one can point to the number of PR personnel in German universities, which is estimated to have increased tenfold within the past 15 years or so. I expect that the figure is similar for UK and US universities.

Several interrelated, mutually reinforcing factors are responsible for this development. Most fundamental is the regime of public management that has subjected universities to global comparison and competition. Some consequences of this are beneficial; some are unintended and detrimental.

A condition of this regime is comparability, which has spawned the creation of performance indicators. Governments of all industrialised nations and even some developing countries are building and justifying their science policies on the promise of delivering innovation that will enhance economic and social well-being. This promise involves all national science systems in the global and unrelenting race for innovation.

Over a relatively short period of three to four decades, these shifts have initiated far-reaching organisational and behavioural changes among universities and their academic staff. The most significant organisational move has been the professionalisation of university management, which nowadays acts very much like the management of private companies. That means that their strategies are dictated by the logic of politics and the media – they are focused on securing political support through attracting public attention. The obsession with attracting attention seduces university management into advertising and, eventually, overstating their achievements, not only putting their institutional credibility at risk but also potentially damaging public trust in science.

The lure of performance indicators as measures of comparison and popularity has taken hold in sizeable sections of the academic community and has eroded the values that shaped its communication behaviour. If the relevant audience for any scholar in 1970 was the community of disciplinary peers, their successors in 2019 look for the attention of the general public.

Government science policies incentivise this attitude with their rhetoric of “outreach”, “engagement” and the “democratic obligation of accountability”. Social media has emerged as an accelerant, firing scientists’ urge to aggrandise their egos with the promise of followers and likes and, as a result, visibility.

Has this development harmed trust in science? Polls in the European Union and the US reveal fairly stable levels of trust but also some ominous signs: trust generally declines as political polarisation rises, while concerns are growing about the commercial funding of research in universities and the impact that this has on objectivity. Evidently, the public has a clear preference for “disinterested” over “interested” communication.

The complexity of this development, of which I have highlighted only the negative aspects, does not leave hope for reversal. But university presidents and scientists alike could take a serious look at the growing evidence that propaganda-style PR is hurting rather than promoting their own image, that of their institutions and trust in science more broadly.

The obvious solution is to separate PR and marketing departments from press offices, which are obligated to provide balanced information, and to implement strict controls on the veracity of factual claims before they are communicated to the public. Governments should learn to distinguish between propaganda and factual information when advancing science communication. Trust in science can be (re)gained only if a commitment to honest and truthful communication is effectively demonstrated.

Peter Weingart is professor of sociology at Bielefeld University

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