With the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry winding down, 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. However, there are many lessons to learn.
The pandemic undoubtedly led to a new appreciation of research, and many universities realized that getting their scientists into the media was a key role they could play. But there were also missed opportunities to collectively raise institutional profiles and protect science. According to a major global survey, less than half of the public thought that universities had been important in dealing with Covid-19.
Moreover, the pandemic accelerated troubling trends that threaten to undermine the vital work of university science press officers. Given that tackling everything from climate change to health disparities requires public trust and engagement with science, this is troubling.
Scientific press officers, at their best, are an essential 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 make all the difference to believing in universities and research when it matters most. This was never more evident than during the pandemic.
Over the past six months, I have interviewed many scientific press officers working in universities across the UK. I have also run surveys, spoken to university leaders and commissioned focus groups with researchers. The aim has been to gain a better-informed overview of this crucial area of science communication and how it has changed in the two decades since the creation of the Science Media Center. What I’ve heard should give you pause for thought.
There is much to celebrate in the way scholarly communication has been created 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 media-centric researchers. But now there seem to be an ever-increasing number of challenges that science press officials must overcome. As a result, many of those I surveyed have considered leaving their jobs.
The competence and responsibilities of these specialists have expanded significantly, including the number and types of audiences with which they must engage. Communications teams also face a multitude 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 increasing focus on reputation management. Not surprisingly, science press workers’ work-life balance has disappeared.
Many now feel inadequate and, at times, have the perception that research communication is being squeezed by competition from other university priorities, such as student recruitment. Marketing and the student-as-customer mindset have also changed the way some universities communicate. There are good reasons for this, but it may inadvertently erode some of the advances in science communication we’ve 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 understand that getting their researchers into the media not only improves public confidence in science, but directly benefits their brand and ability to attract top talent. Therefore, universities must assess and adequately resource communication research and media relations, protecting them 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 difference can be made by how they value communications teams. In general, most scientific press officers – and certainly the ones I spoke to – are extremely passionate about what they do. This passion goes a long way in helping them face the trials of the job. However, what they often struggle with is when their hard-earned expertise is not properly valued, especially by senior colleagues.
Vice-chancellors, directors of advancement and other university leaders can think more about how they support press and communications officers. At the moment, it may seem as if minimal consideration is given to their career development, especially in relation to those who are more experienced and likely to face significant complex challenges while providing a crucial strategic service to their university.
There were university researchers advising the government, producing vaccines to get us out of lockdown and, critically, appearing regularly on the news to share crucial information as the pandemic unfolded. But this would not be possible without the experienced science press officers that the UK is lucky to have. The higher education sector and the rest of the science community must do all they can to support them if we are to tackle future societal challenges and maintain confidence in research and universities.
Helen Jamison is an independent science communication consultant. She has previously worked at the Center for Science Media, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Wellcome Trust and Nature.