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How do you include Public Engagement in Team Science?

At the WetenschnappsXL meeting (October 4th, 2022) I led a panel discussion on the relationship between public engagement (PE) and Team Science (TS). My guests in the panel were Erik van Sebille, Nieske Vergunst and Stans de Haas, all from Utrecht University. In this blog I want to go over some points that stood out to me when we talked about integrating science communication or public engagement into Team Science.

The things I discuss below are either (after)thoughts of my own, or things that a panelist or audience member said, but most likely a combination of them. I will therefore not credit them to a single person, but rather say that this was a result of this big team effort, and express my gratitude to everyone’s contributions.

1. What is a team?

This may seem like hair splitting, but when we talk about Team Science, it’s good to know what, exactly, a ‘team’ entails. Is it everybody who falls below a professor or PI? A bunch of researchers with similar interests distributed over the same institution? Perhaps it is a few scientists and some supporting people somewhere else in the organization? Or is it even an international network formed around a project like a Horizon grant? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but acknowledging this vagueness goes a long way towards explaining why it’s hard to define roles. What I do take away from this, is that it’s most likely that both as a scientist and as supporting employee, you are likely to be member of multiple teams.

2. We need to break down the distinction between scientific personnel and supporting personnel (WP/OBP in Dutch).

With TS on the rise, it becomes clear that expertise that before used to be quite removed from the daily research practice, is drawn back towards research again. Grant writing, science communication and the like should be close to the research to have maximum effect. This makes sense, when you consider the expertise involved; the more you know about the field of research as well as the hurdles that its researchers experience, the better you can bring your expertise to the team. The implication of this is that we need to break down the boundary between scientific and supporting personnel, and that centralization of these experts is detrimental to that.

3. Be aware of the cultural differences between research and what goes on around it.

Research, like any other work environment, has its own culture, ideas and atmosphere. And thus it can clash with other departments, such as the communications department. As a science communications advisor I can definitely feel this culture difference in for example the goals and motivations behind science communication. Are we doing it (f.i.!) to take responsibility for our work (science), to attract students (education), to attract scientists (science, HR), to get funding (administration), or to help make the lives of (potential) patients better (patients and caregivers)?

The more embedded you are in the research, the more you can embrace their culture, and the less pull you feel from other motivations. What the right motivation is, is decided on a meta-level by the person hiring for this function. But from a science and society perspective, I’d say public engagement becomes more fruitful when done from inside or close to the research.

4. It’s about persons – not about vacancies

The person who fills a job opening has a lot of influence on how this job is done. In TS, ideally you have a team of complementary people who all know their role and added value. Finding and adding the right person can really make a big difference, and bring a lot of added value to the others. But this also means that when one team member leaves, it’s nigh impossible to replace that person without changing the flow of the team.

TS therefore comes with the acceptance (or opportunity, depending on your personality) that teams are fluid, and that the strengths of a team change with whoever is in it. Depending on the one managing or shaping the team, this may mean that you want to strive for long-term commitments of members. It could also mean forming a core of long term, heavily involved team members, surrounded by more loosely involved team members that are less essential to the team’s long term vision. Especially with expertise like science communication, I imagine this is how its integration in TS starts.

5. ‘Tradition’ of communication might also change

Currently, who does what in science communication is quite predictable. The more senior you are as a researcher, the more likely it is that you will be in the media, and the more junior you are, the more likely it is that you will do outreach events. Of course there are exceptions, but after working with thousands of scientists, this image is unmistakable. But what happens when you add a science communication specialist to a team?

This could go multiple ways. Maybe this is someone who facilitates and empowers the communication of the others, not necessarily grabbing the stage themselves, and thus keeping the status quo. But this person could also take over the communication roles, becomes the face of the team, even though they may not be the most senior member. It’s up to the team to decide how this should be arranged, but it’s clear that it comes with possibilities.

To conclude…

The aim of the session was to discuss Team Science in a practical way, and I hope that these points reflect that. Of course, these are also quite new developments, and it might take some time before you encounter these situations. But I hope it helps to consider the options that you have! And of course, I’m more than happy to hear what your take on this is. >