Spotlight on Research #19: Do you want to change the world?

Research Highlight | July 03, 2015

7.3.2015 fleury

Professor Jean-Marc Fleury examines submitted questions from group discussions after his talk.


Which is more deadly, a robot or … a tomato?

Type ‘robot’ into Google and your page will be filled with a plethora of positive ideas. Robots allow us to connect with distant family, do jobs we all hate, save lives and —to really seal the deal— they starred in a Disney animated movie that is flat-out adorable.

However, enter ‘tomato’ into Google and it will not be long before the subject of genetic modification rears its ugly head. Claims regarding GM foods damaging health and environment roll off every line.

This contrast is despite the life saving robots being developed by a military technology agency, while humans have been using selective breeding to genetically tweak their veggies for thousands of years.

It is — Jean-Marc Fleury explains — an example of the power of communication.

Fleury’s experience in science communication is extensive. At present, he holds the Bell Globemedia Chair in Science Journalism at Laval University in Canada’s Quebec City, and he is the Senior Advisor of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). He visited Hokudai this month to speak at the third ‘Student Meeting of Leading Graduate Schools’, which combines graduate students from a wide range of scientific disciplines. Speaking before his lecture, Fleury told us he had made only one assumption about his audience:

“I think everyone wants to change the world,” he said.

This day’s talk was a practice run for the official lecture on the weekend and  Fleury focused on the communication of scientific ideas for the tool of choice for this world-changing ambition.

Fleury explained that while robots could easily be seen as dangerous inventions, their positive associations were due to good communication. Meanwhile, the subject of genetic modification had been divulged so poorly that the scientific opinion that such foods were safe was no longer trusted.

“Robots could easily have become an evil Frankenstein!” Fleury exclaims. “Franken-robots makes far more sense than franken-foods. Robots could turn out to be our worst enemy, while instead we discarded a GM tomato!”

Talking to the media was once considered a chore by academics who would prefer to spend their time at the lab bench. However, it is now part of the job description and engaging with the public reaps rewards. Funding councils are keen to be associated with projects the public perceive as important. Having your research visible in the media therefore significantly increases the chances of a successful grant application.

Yet communication does come with risks. Deciding to go public opens a scientist to having both their research and personal life attacked. Social media exacerbates the dangers by giving everybody a voice that can reach a huge audience in moments. A recent example came only this month at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul. Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt gave an ill-considered speech where he stated that women in laboratories were a problem. Within minutes, his comment had been posted on twitter and he was forced to resign from his positions at University College London and on the European Research Council within the same day.

Fleury’s advice for avoiding such downfalls is to seek advice from communication experts and also to enlist the help of science journalists.

The role of a science journalist is more than just translating jargon into human-readable prose. By relating scientific ideas to social and political affairs, they form a bridge between what researchers describe and what is important to the public. It is this combination of scientist and science journalist that Fleury believes holds the most power for change.

A potent example was work being done in a rural area of Tanzania by Canadian researchers on child mortality diseases. By redirecting sparsely spread funds to targeting illnesses that caused the most damage, the death rate in infants had dropped by 28% in one year. It was a staggering result and one Fleury wanted to make sure reached the world.

He therefore approached the high impact publication, ‘The Economist’, arranging a meeting during a trip to London to describe the research. The result was a three-page spread that appeared as the cover story in the magazine in August 2002. The combination of the life-saving science and the communication strategy saw Tanzania extend the program across the country, resulting in the nation heading to complete its goal of a two-thirds drop in child mortality by this year. It was indeed a project to change the world.

So what must a scientist do to gain such publicity?

Science journalists depend on finding expert voices. Fleury suggests researchers should focus on an area of expertise that they are happy to discuss with the media. Examples within Japan of scientists in the press include Rieko Aoki, who is frequently interviewed for her suggestion that parents get their children’s political votes to combat Japan’s falling birthrate, Hitoshi Murayama, who is the director of Tokyo’s Kavli Institute and a strong promoter of fundamental science and Mamoru Mohri, who is a role model as both a scientist and Japan’s first professional astronaut.

If blasting into space seems a dangerous way to attract media attention, Fleury recommends submitting short opinion articles known as ‘op-eds’ to newspapers and magazines. These can build a reputation for being a reliable contact point for information on a subject.

Universities can help with the process by compiling a directory of experts on different topics who will respond promptly to interest from journalists. It is also important institutes acknowledges such contributions from their researchers, Fleury points out, as the university’s reputation increases with the media exposure.

To those wishing to try science journalism, Fleury’s advice was simple, “Just do it!” he told the audience. “Submit articles to your university magazine or city newspaper.”

Even if a submitted piece is not accepted, publication editors will frequently provide advice on how the article could be improved. Constructive criticism from both experts and non-experts is important and Fleury admits his wife typically covers his articles in red ink.

Fleury’s final advice to future journalists was not to write about your own research. It is almost impossible to avoid going into too much depth for your audience. “Science journalists know nothing… about everything….” Fleury concludes.

Author: Elizabeth Tasker

(As an extra point, anyone wishing to contribute to the University research blog should contact Elizabeth Tasker)