Researchers gather the people behind you!

#Standbehindscience is happy to share with our readers Dr. Peter Weber views on finding better ways for researchers to communicate their findings towards non-academic audience. Highly recommended read on scholarly communication. Thank you Peter.

Peter, please tell us about yourself and about your background

I am a physicist, 47 years old, and currently living with my family in Mainz, Germany. I graduated in Düsseldorf, and in 2004 I earned my PhD in the field of nanolayered magnetic materials at Stuttgart University. Currently I am professor at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, teaching electronics, metrology, mathematics and physics. Moreover, I am working as a journalist in the realm of technology and science.

My experience is based on many years in semiconductor equipment industries. I worked in R&D and manufacturing of high-precision glass-ceramics components for photolithography, the key technique for computer chip production.

My changing responsibilities gave me a good cross section of industrial organisations, seeing them with the eyes of a quality engineer, a project manager (R&D), and  manager of engineering as well as manufacturing departments.

Why did you decide to become a “technical/scientific journalist”?

First and foremost: I am curious. I love to dive into topics, give them structure, cut them to slices, understand them piece by piece, and finally zoom out again to see the big picture. And I love to share such insights with others: Explain things. Not to celebrate complexity. But for the sake of a fascination, that only comes with understanding. Making others curious as well. My vision is to interconnect remote expert communities, as well as to transport the fascination of technology and science into people’s every-day life.

What do you think is the driving motor for a change in scientific communication?

When you do research, somebody has to pay for it.

Take the example of computer-chip development over the last decades: A few companies spent billions on R&D. Driver for these monstrous investments was the ever-growing mobile-devices consumer market, esp. smartphones. And their investments returned very soon!

When you do research in a less market-driven field, be it natural, social or cultural sciences, things become different. Long-term and even fundamental research is of high importance, no question! But investors are the less inclined to support you, the less you can link to a (financially) promising short-term application. This is, why academic research is traditionally promoted by public funding: To ensure long-term gain of knowledge.

But why putting that much emphasis on communicating academic research to the non-academic audiences?

Academic research always had its firm standing in our society. But in the ever-ongoing struggle for public funds, established claims are questioned, new channels of communication are utilized, and competition becomes harder. Political decisions are made on the basis of reason, lobbies and public opinion. As always: If you need budget, you have to explain your boss. In case of public funding in a democracy, your boss is the public. Explain your research to the public! Awaken enthusiasm and create a momentum in society, that makes it pay for politicians, to promote your academic research.

Will it pay off for research in general, for universities and for society?

Our society needs innovation. In a high tech, high living-standard community, only innovation can keep us afloat in a sea of low-wage, highly efficient mass production. European companies of tomorrow will prosper on technologies, that arise from today’s research. And: There are pressing ecologic and social topics to be addressed for keeping the clockwork running. Thus, I do explicitly talk about all branches of science here.

Do you see ways to improve?

This new kind of communication is a U-turn away from classic scientific publication. Yes, there are scientists, who are perfect entertainers and naturally gifted explainers. But many are not. And just because someone is a bad salesman, he might still be a brilliant scientist. New concepts need to make sure, that the “bad-salesman brilliant scientist guy” gets the necessary support, back-office, and tools to carry on. This is a big challenge for academic organizations.

What is your opinion about Open Access? Why?

Open Access is a great chance to correct some developments of the last decades. But it is no automatism. The big challenges stay the same, and need manpower as well as expertise (i.e. money): Scientific, editorial and didactic quality control. Responsibilities and workflows for these three topics are shifting now. More responsibility (i.e. effort) will fall on the academic organisations, to ensure, that their Open Access publications actually foster reputation.

Communication towards non-academic audience via Open Access is another cup of tea. The public needs more guidance, filtering and a different didactic approach. Open Access is a fine tool here as well. There are platforms for scientists, and there will be (other) platforms for non-scientists. Nevertheless, non-academic publication will always need the established channels of publishers (be it written, TV, or Internet) as well.

However, high quality Open Access does not come for free, and there will be organizations and companies trying to gain influence on the content with their money. The biggest challenge of Open Access will be to keep lobbyism out of dictating the content.

©Peter Weber, May 9th, 2020

Prof. Dr. Peter Weber