Audience-centric communication to build science’s reputation among the public

We interviewed Dr. Daniel Rupprecht, Science Manager & Innovation Consultant, about his experiences and views on science communication. He emphasizes that switching perspectives can not only benefit research, but also society’s attitude towards science.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I was born in Cologne and grew up close to the Dutch border. Already during school time, my areas of interest have ever been natural sciences. Later on, I studied biology and chemistry in Cologne, Barcelona, and Würzburg. In Munich, I started my career with Süd Chemie AG to build up analytical lab infrastructures for bioprocess development and later joined Merck KGaA as a Head of R&D for rapid test kit development. Currently, I am with the Strategic Marketing & Innovation department of Merck KGaA and obtained an EMBA from Mannheim Business School and ESSEC (Paris) in 2019. In my private life, I am a father of three children, a passionate offshore sailor (with very limited time to do so), and a hobby politician as a board member of the Green party in the area I currently live.

What do you think about the way of how academic research is disseminated towards non-academic audiences? From your point of view, what’s the impact of academic research on our society?

Academia is mainly driven by expertise. Researchers are never trained to communicate their work to non-experts. The current COVID crisis clearly demonstrated: Germany has some of the most renowned experts in this field on a global scale, but the reputation of these experts is limited in the public, although we should be proud of them. This may be because of a decrease of the reputation of science in general. In addition, a reason might be the communication in science, which is frequently sender- and expertise-centric instead of audience-centric. It appears to be questionable if it is a goal for science at all to communicate to the public. I know brilliant researchers with very poor communication skills. Furthermore, this problem also occurs with peer-to-peer communication inside the scientific world. Scientists are trained to identify and remove bottlenecks. Therefore, the communication is frequently focused on the gap, not the achievement. This improves the efficiency but is a problem for cross-fertilization. Templates and standard formats can help to fix this issue as they carefully drive scientists to boil down their achievements to focus on the crucial points without distracting the audience with too many details, which are definitely important in research but increase the risk of losing attention and of being misunderstood.

Based on your experiences, and with the current younger researcher in mind, what would you wish you knew about research collaboration and the dissemination of research findings when you started your PhD?

I personally did not make unpleasant experiences with knowledge-silos as I had the luck of having very collaborative peers and extremely transparent and supportive mentors in science. I think some observations in science must be experienced, not only learned by getting insights told. For teaching purposes, it is not too bad to experience different ways of knowledge generation and not be perfectly guided by others on expected results. Some of the most important research findings occur serendipitously. I would have liked to know more about falsified working hypotheses before experimenting in a certain field. Those failures are frequently not documented, because this is less rewarding than investing the time in further, hopefully successful research that can then be published far easier. Nonetheless, sharing failures can increase the performance and efficiency of a research group and, hence, adds value to an organization.

What’s your definition of scientific communication?

Wikipedia provides a very interesting definition of communication: “…the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another…”. Interestingly, even the wording derives from “to share” (Latin: communicare). And beyond thinking about the meaning (= information), one needs to think of the format as well. It does not help to tell the best insights to somebody in a language that he or she does not understand. The same applies to scientific communication. The science universe is too large and diverse to find a “one-size-fits-all” solution. However, also in this context, it is crucial to find a common language to stick to when performing the communication.