“University administrators are often not the catalyst for cultural change.”


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June 10, 2024 | “If universities and scientists are only busy with their own stereotyping, who actually talks about the role and value of science in society?” Ivo van Volpen, professor of science communication, calls on his colleagues to do more in science communication.






Ivo van Volpen during his inauguration speech


During his opening lecture, Ivo van Volpen, Special Professor of Science Communication in Physics at Leiden University, criticized the role of many university administrators in promoting cultural change within the academic world. He highlighted the challenges faced by young scientists and the need for a more inclusive and supportive scientific culture. The current culture of winners also ensures that young talents do not dare to do science communication, because they are often judged negatively by their managers, says the Leiden professor.

During his speech, Van Volpen stressed the importance of transparency and communication in science. “As scientists, we are in a privileged position to seek answers to the questions that matter to us, with taxpayer funding, in relative freedom and independence. The least we can do is show what we do and also what we have learned. This new knowledge, ideas and insights help us as a society and as individuals to understand the world around us.” Better and make informed choices.

For a politician, emotions are also facts

In communications, it has long been clear that conveying only facts, along with preconceived conclusions, is not the best strategy for persuading people. This is how physicist Van Volpen sees it. We have seen many examples in public debates in recent years where things have gone wrong. Involving the public in research, through public engagement with science, is more powerful in building trust and a long-term relationship with the public. Topics such as climate change and energy transition also involve politics and emotions. For a politician, emotions are also facts, that’s what I’ve learned recently. So sometimes it’s better to start a dialogue, an idea that is only slowly percolating among scientists.

According to the part-time professor of science communication, many scientists in various fields can greatly benefit from communicating with the general public. “As an individual scientist, there are reasons to invest in a conversation with the general public about your research. It teaches you to look at your work from the outside. Something you can also use in your work. Not only in conversations with colleagues and during presentations, but also when selling your ideas to a panel of experts Unexpected questions sometimes provide new insights, meet interesting people, and give you a lot of fun and positive energy.

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Increasingly a world of winners and losers

This contact with the outer shell of universities also made van Wohlpen aware of the fact that there were sometimes incorrect images of the flag there. “The image of the academic world, as a place where geniuses think about and experience peace and freedom every day in pursuit of a Nobel Prize, is not a good representation of reality. Academia is increasingly becoming a world of winners and losers. It is an incredibly competitive environment, where young scientists compete with their colleagues.” From all over the world for a long and uncertain period in search of one of those coveted permanent jobs.

“A narrow and uncertain path,” Van Volpen said. “You often have to move, with or without your partner, with no guarantee that there will be a job at the end, somewhere in the world. Within the academic world we assert that this is how we select the best scientists. But is this also true?”

Current selection produces bias

Fortunately, there is a growing interest in alternatives that determine the quality of scientists, says Professor Leiden. “This is also necessary because current selection is biased towards a fairly specific type of scientist. This has a number of consequences. Scientists who survive selection can benefit from this competitive drive. They will spend a significant portion of their time writing research proposals throughout their career. This allows You purchase equipment and recruit doctoral students, which is crucial to continuing your research.

The chances of success are unfortunately very low, according to the professor, who is also an associate professor of physics. “In fact; it’s so low that you might wonder if the whole circus and science don’t cost more money than it’s paid for. And then, we haven’t even mentioned the questions you can ask about how robust the selection process itself is. It all sounds very inefficient, but As an individual scientist you have to participate, because this is the only way to get money and winning is crucial, especially for young scientists.

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“This constant competition creates a stressful environment that is not conducive to solidarity and science. In it, people or groups necessarily focus primarily on money and themselves, rather than on collective action.

Winners who demand freedoms lead to unhealthy situations

A world of winners and losers, which also causes a lot of insecurity, says Professor Leiden. “Where winners are put on a pedestal within their organization and given a lot of freedom. It is not surprising that these people begin to believe this in themselves and allow themselves more and more freedoms. This creates very unhealthy situations.”

Van Volpen argues that this behavior is also harmful to science. “We regularly hear about unsafe situations and incidents involving abuse of power. Although we are repeatedly shocked, this does not really surprise most scientists. As a result, confidence in the ability to self-regulate in science is under severe pressure. It benefits the reputation of knowledge and knowledge.”

Young scientists are extremely vulnerable in this system, Van Volpen said at the Leiden Academy building in Rabenburg. “New ideas and creativity do not flourish in this highly competitive environment. Although sometimes it seems as if that is exactly what is being emphasized. And that creativity is exactly what science is all about. A flaw in the system in my view.”

University administrators want to do the right thing

The question is also whether university administrators are the right people to break this trend. “University administrators want to do the right thing, but because these are often people who have risen to prominence in that system, they are often not the catalyst for necessary cultural change.”

With these critical remarks addressed to the academic company, the professor returned to the primary task of his appointment. He believes that this fundamental task is not yet appreciated everywhere. “The idea is that only scientists who are not good enough engage in outreach. This negative connotation is called the Carl Sagan effect. After the American physicist who played an important role in popularizing the natural sciences and engaged in public debates, but was not fully appreciated by many “From his colleagues. This happens a lot, and also in the Netherlands.”

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Certainly not live

As mentioned earlier in his speech, van Volpen pointed out that it can be quite a challenge to tell your story to a wide audience. “Be happy to have someone who can explain our profession to a wide audience and promote physics. Colleagues easily forget that this is a talent too, and that it is not easy to do this translation, especially not live on TV.

The physicist believes that the incomplete picture of scientific communication is also harmful to young scientists. “It is interesting to see that these people are regularly evaluated negatively by colleagues who are only focused on themselves and their careers. The idea that interest in this matter has been lost to science has been debunked time and time again, but it remains in the minds of many Scientists As I said, the path to a permanent career in science is narrow and uncertain so if, as a young scientist, you have the idea that the people deciding your future are thinking negatively about this, the choice will be quickly lost And creativity in this way.

The Communications Department focuses on public relations

Van Volpen also had urgent advice for universities and their communications departments when it comes to scholarly communication. “The primary mission of the university’s communications department is focused on public relations. ‘How can we make our organization and our employees receive positive press?’” So the focus is often on major discoveries, important scientists, the university’s standing in the international arena and recruiting new students.

The Leiden professor wondered if institutions and scientists were only busy with their own stereotyping, who would actually talk about the role and value of science in society? “Who talks about the need for basic research? Who talks about the scientific process itself? Where are the young scientists? Important aspects for which we as a society have a collective responsibility. The passion lies in the world itself, show it.”

Megan Vasquez

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