Science Communicator Fred Balvert: 'For a Journalist, Geniuine Interest Matters More Than Knowledge'

Why is communication such an important part of science? Why should we improve the society’s trust in research? How does a science communicator create correct and yet simple texts? Fred Balvert, science communicator at Erasmus University Medical Centre Rotterdam, answered these and other questions in an interview for ITMO.NEWS.

Fred Balvert at the International Union World Conference on Lung Health

How did your career in science communication begin?

I studied to be a journalist and from practice I developed myself into a communications advisor. My work as a science communicator started when I was writing for the newspaper of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Here I “translated” scientific topics and interviews with researchers to make them more accessible to the wider public. At the same time I had been writing a lot about theater, visual arts, dance, etc. That experience helped me realize that science needs to be presented to an audience in the same way as arts and culture; I also learned how to talk about complex topics in simple language and discuss these topics with professionals and the general public alike. I interviewed directors, producers, actors for texts on arts, which are sometimes even harder to write about as science. As a science communicator, I also began applying formats of expression that are typical for arts: exhibitions, games, stage plays. My work for the university later got me a job at Erasmus University Medical Center Rotterdam, where I still work today.

Do you organize exhibitions and kids’ games today?

I do. Games aren’t just for kids, but for adults as well. Ten years ago, on the occasion of the Darwin Year, we developed an online game called The Great Flu, which helps adults understand the dynamics of a flu epidemic. About half a million people from 40 countries played it; the threat of an epidemic was looming, and the media brought up the topic a lot. Scientific games are a very efficient tool of science communication, and it needs to be developed further.

The Great Flu. Credit: comm2302conspiracy.wordpress.com
The Great Flu. Credit: comm2302conspiracy.wordpress.com

This might be a dumb question, but: what is the goal of science communication? A lot of people don’t understand why universities suddenly need to have these new departments for science communication, and why the society needs to sponsor that. They are asking: “What good is this to me?”

A great deal of humanity’s global issues can only be solved by scientists. Without research we can’t tackle challenges related to climate change, waste recycling, or new functional materials. There’s an initiative in development in the European Union called Responsible Research & Innovation, which aims to involve more people in actual research. They want people to be not just passive observers of scientific progress, but its active participants and stakeholders. There are many ways to involve the society in research, to make people help science and influence it. For instance, patients’ experiences are a unique source of data for researchers and medical experts from which they can learn more about this or that disease. That’s why patient data collection technologies and dialogue must become an important part of research. This can make people feel themselves a part of the scientific progress. And this also goes for other research fields.

People are often afraid of new medical technologies. What is your advice to science communicators in the field of medicine? How do you dispel the fears related to high-tech medicine?

It makes sense for people to be wary of modern medical technologies, because that’s something that directly concerns their health and well-being. There are also fears related to the involvement of companies or industries in the development of particular drugs. Besides, the public perception can be that scientists are focused more on the scientific aspect of their research and not its benefit to the society. On the other hand, people are interested in medical technology precisely because it concerns their health. Many of us have friends or relatives undergoing innovative treatment. So when you’re trying to popularize medical research, you need to provide the proper context for each illness. How does it emerge? What is its threat to society? How does it develop? If people are better informed, they feel more confident and ready to make up their mind about this or that development. It’s also important to be open and talk about successes and failures alike. Everybody knows that researchers are people, too, and they make mistakes. It’s better to talk about it than lie that everything is going well. Lies are a much bigger issue than mistakes. If scientists are covering things up, they’re just giving people reason to distrust them. Another important bit: you need to keep track of what’s worrying the society. For instance, people might be concerned that GMO research is harming the environment, and that is a topic for research that should be undertaken.

ITMO University's SCAMT Lab
ITMO University's SCAMT Lab

So the goal for science communicators should be to pay attention to the trends and hot topics and talk to scientists about them, as well as to provide the necessary context?

Absolutely. We should also prepare researchers for the questions they might be asked. In fact, scientists might be asked questions about things they’re not specialized in, but which worry the public and need to be answered.

This brings up another question. We’ve recently interviewed a student who said that science communicators shouldn’t become too conceited, i.e. believe their opinion to be the absolute truth, as the final opinion lies with the scientists. What do you think?

It’s really great that people here at ITMO University are thinking about this; part of being a professional is knowing your role in the process of science communication. Sometimes, communicators have a scientific background, and sometimes they find out things from scientists when working together. But you still shouldn’t forget that you’re not an expert. Even if you’re knowledgeable in the field, you are still, first and foremost, a go-between the scientists and the society. It’s very hard to preserve that balance. When I started working at Erasmus Medical Centre, I started getting emails from people asking me to help with a diagnosis or treatment options. Of course, when you know some things or can learn them from working with doctors and scientists, you might start thinking that you, too, can give someone medical advice. But you should never ever do that. Sometimes, a scientist can tell you: “Okay, tell them to do this and that,” but even that isn’t a good idea. Only a doctor can give medical advice. It’s also important to be unbiased within the scientific community. If you become attached to a specific scientific opinion, you’ll be unable to see that there is other research in the field, and no opinion is ever absolute. You should always remember the basic principles of science communication and develop them. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but you must be capable of self-criticism.

Science Gallery International. Credit: ecsite.eu
Science Gallery International. Credit: ecsite.eu

Science communication in Russia is still in its infancy. How well are you familiar with the field of SciComm in our country?

I am somewhat familiar, mostly from what I learn from ITMO University’s science communication group, who run the Science Communication Master’s program. They told me that it’s hard to popularize science in Russia because not all scientists find it an important endeavor that is worth spending their time on. But don’t forget, that it is often the same story in Europe, although we started earlier. It is sometimes hard to work with researchers, and it always will demand a lot of effort to maintain a good relationship. Scientists may be afraid that the journalists are inexperienced and will make mistakes in reporting on their research. Even if a scientist and a journalist are interacting smoothly, you’ll still get incidental cases in the media where the researcher hasn’t been honest or where the journalist made a slip-up. This instantly makes people distrust science communication, which has to be restored. So, it’s important that we always maintain an active dialogue between researchers and science communicators, and also coach and train scientists to communicate with the public.

Science Gallery International. Credit: ecsite.eu
Science Gallery International. Credit: ecsite.eu

Is there a scientific institution that you would cite as an example of how to do science communication perfectly?

I think there are plenty of those, but it’s important to adopt the experience that fits your scientific organization. Everyone’s good at different things. Some, for example, have an established relationship with the public, like Science Gallery International. They launch various initiatives combining science and art, organize exhibitions, involve universities. This is their way of creating a dialogue between society and scientists. But that’s just one aspect of science communication. At Erasmus Medical Centre, we have a great press office; we don’t just do advertising or propaganda, we try to be honest and transparent. It’s hard to find an institution that does everything equally well.

You are a part of the organizing committee for the International School of Science Journalism in Erice. What issues and challenges were the participants most concerned about?

There are two main issues. The first one is the role of science journalists in their field, i.e. where they can find work and make a living. 20 years ago every newspaper had a science section; today’s media pay less attention to this area. Science journalists have to seek out new ways to apply their skills online, as freelancers, in a world where every internet user can write their own content. Another problem for fledgling science journalists is how they perceive their own scientific expertise. If they’re interviewing a scientist, they think that they have to know everything about the interviewee’s field of study. This year, we talked about how the most important thing for science journalists are skills like critical thinking, the ability to use different sources, know where to find stories and be independent.

The International School of Science Journalism in Erice
The International School of Science Journalism in Erice

The feeling of not being prepared enough for an interview with a scientist is something that’s familiar to all science journalists. What are your tips for these kinds of situations?

Most scientists like to talk about their work. To prepare, you should study the scientist’s other work, learn the context of your topic, how the society feels about it. You should talk to them with respect: don’t be overly familiar with them or act like you’ve known them for years. Make sure that the scientist understands why you’re writing and who your target audience are. Knowing that there will be non-specialists among the readers will help your interviewee choose the right words and expressions, as well as let you get away with certain omissions and generalizations. And remember to keep your promises. If you said that the article is going to be ready for their approval in two days, that’s how it should be. Otherwise they’ll start worrying that you’ve already published the article and you can’t be trusted. Your genuine interest in the topic is better than your knowledge of it. You can always say: “I’m sorry, I’m not an expert in this, can you please explain?” Because if you don’t understand, neither will your readers.

Do you plan to work together with ITMO University’s science communication team?

I know Dmitry Malkov and Daria Denisova, the heads of ITMO’s science communication school, from Erice. I gave several lectures to students of the Master’s program “Science Communication” at ITMO. I’d be glad to be involved in developing science communication at the university. A dialogue with the Russian scientific community is a great thing, because Russia has a wonderful scientific tradition and there are things we can learn from each other. In 2022, the conference Public Communication of Science and Technology will be held in Rotterdam. I’ll be involved in organizing it, and I believe that ITMO University should also host this event one day. If it does, I’ll be glad to assist.

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