With the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry finally underway, universities could be forgiven for thinking the questions it raises are not for them. The terms of reference focus on decision-making in government, not higher education. Still, there are many lessons to be learned.
The pandemic has undoubtedly led to a renewed appreciation of research, and many universities have realized that engaging their academics in the media is a key role they can play. But opportunities to collectively raise institutional profiles and science advocacy were also missed. According to a major global survey, less than half of public universities believe that universities have been important in dealing with Covid -19.
What’s more, the pandemic has accelerated troubling trends that threaten to undermine the vital work of university scientific presses. Given that tackling everything from climate change to health inequities requires public trust and engagement with science, this is troubling.
The scientific press is, at its best, the main conduit between researchers and the media, between science and the public. The nature of their work means it often goes under the radar, but it can be important to trust universities and research when it matters most. Never has this been more evident than during the pandemic.
Over the past six months I have interviewed many science press officers working in UK universities. I also conducted surveys, spoke with university leaders and commissioned focus groups with researchers. The goal is to gain a better informed view of this critically important area of science communication and how it has changed in the two decades since the Science Media Center was established. What I heard should make me think.
There is much to celebrate in how scholarly communication has settled in universities; the arguments for why researchers and their universities should communicate are mostly won. Teams of talented press and communications experts have grown, bringing the skills and experience needed to translate complex science and support researchers into the media spotlight. But now it seems that there are a growing number of challenges that science journalists must overcome. As a result, many of the respondents considered leaving their jobs.
The competence and responsibilities of these professionals have expanded significantly, including the number and types of audiences they must work with. Communications teams also face an abundance of digital channels and tools that, while offering greater control over their messages, don’t always reach the widest audience. And as universities find themselves under greater financial and political pressure, there is also an increased focus on reputation management. Not surprisingly, the science press’s work-life balance has all but disappeared.
Many now feel under-resourced and sometimes feel that research communication is being pushed out by competition from other university priorities such as student recruitment. Marketing and thinking of students as customers has also changed the way some universities communicate. There are good reasons for this, but it may inadvertently undermine some of the progress in scholarly communication that we have seen over the past 20 years.
So what can universities do? Some are in much better places than others and we need to recognize the significant challenges they already face and be realistic about what can change. But there are things they, working together with the rest of the scientific community, can do to make a difference. In many cases, even small changes would go a long way.
Universities need to recognize that including their researchers in the media not only improves public trust in science, but directly benefits their brand and their ability to attract top talent. Universities should therefore value and adequately resource communication and media relations research, protecting it from the unintended consequences of pressure from other communication priorities.
Universities that lack the resources to fully implement such ways of working may be surprised by how much of a difference the way they value communication teams can make. In general, most science journalists – and certainly the ones I’ve spoken to – are extremely passionate about what they do. This passion largely helps them cope with the trials of work. What they often find difficult, however, is when their hard-earned expertise is not properly valued, especially by senior colleagues.
Vice-chancellors, directors of advancement and other university leaders could therefore give more thought to how they support press and communications staff. At present, it may appear that minimal attention is paid to their career development, particularly in relation to those who are more experienced and likely to face significant complex challenges while providing a crucial strategic service to their university.
It was university researchers who advised the government, produced vaccines to get us out of lockdown and, critically, appeared regularly in the news to share important information as the pandemic unfolded. But this would not have been possible without the experienced specialist scientific presses that the UK is fortunate to have. The higher education sector and the rest of the scientific community must do all they can to support them if we are to meet future societal challenges and maintain trust in research and universities.
Helen Jamieson is an independent science communications consultant. She previously worked at the Science Media Centre, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Wellcome Trust and Nature.