BE.SciComm 2021
Written by Ingrid van Marion

On the 10th of December many enthusiastic science communicators, from academic scientists to journalist, press officers, communications officers, policy workers etc, joined online to discuss the current field of science communication in Belgium and beyond.

The day started with a welcome from the hosts; Liesbeth Aerts, who organizes meetups for the Belgian science communication community, together with Bart Vanhaelewyn and Ingrid van Marion who both represented the NeFCA Science Communication Division. They managed to put together a varied program reflecting on research, professional practices and education.

During the first session, 158 participants attended a lively discussion by four PhD researchers. Elisa Nelissen (KU Leuven), Carlo Gubitosa (ULB), Bart Vanhaelewyn (UGent) and Sofie Verkest (UGent) explained their research and shared their journey into the science communication field. The academic field in Belgium is small but growing as these pioneers raise awareness for the need of funding and organizational support for studies on topics such as citizen science, science journalism and trust in science communication.

Next, we looked beyond the borders of Belgium as Alexander Gerber (Rhine-Waal University, INSCICO) told us more about the field in Germany and stressed the importance of evidence-based science communication. Marina Joubert (Stellenbosch University) describes how science communication has evolved over time in South Africa through a reflection on factors including history, diversity, poverty and inequality and final thoughts on the current science communication landscape in which engagement practices and research studies are increasing. She also pointed out the impact of science communication during the pandemic and supported the call from Alexander Gerber for more evidence-based science communication. Ini Vanwesenbeeck shared her experiences as a Flemish scholar now based in the Netherlands and her research, which connects to communication between different stakeholders. She touched on the factors that may make researchers hesitate to share their work with the general public and explained the value of NeFCA as an opportunity to network with other researchers and discover the common ground that many communication scholars in different disciplines have.

After a lunch break with networking possibilities, a panel of professional science communicators told us about their professional profiles and their current role. Reinout Verbeke (Museum of Natural Sciences), Lise Van der Haegen (Artevelde Hogeschool) and Annelies Duerinckx (Scivil) identified a lack of time and funding as bottlenecks to improve current practices and would like to engage with researchers to measure and increase impact of their science communication efforts. Sharing of best practices with other national and international colleagues is happening but could be increased to further professionalize outreach efforts. Involvement of their target audiences at an early stage when organizing events was pointed out to be important to increase engagement with science.

“A lack of time” and “the feeling that science communication is a hobby” were mentioned as a common reason for PhD students to stop their outreach efforts by Arnoud Zonderman, who trains young researchers through SciMingo. However, he also finds that long term coaching, with a concrete science communication product and positive feedback as an outcome of training, is motivating for young researchers to continue sharing their research with lay audiences. Professor Katrien Kolenberg (KU Leuven) confirms that there is a lot of interest from Master and PhD students from a wide variety of disciplines for her courses related to science communication and outreach. To improve training of young researchers, she calls for more integration of expert knowledge from within the field, exchange with communication offices, an interdisciplinary curriculum and “awareness of the precarious position of the communicating scientist”. This connects well with the ideas put forward by Ingrid van Marion (Science Communication researcher, ULB), who is advocating for the creation of a master program in Science Communication, as this currently does not exist in Belgium. When looking at existing master programs throughout Europe, a variety of subjects are taught, educating a wide variety of science communication professionals, ranging from educators, science journalists, marketing consultants and event communication strategists to policy advisors, knowledge brokers and academic researchers.

The closing session was led by a passionate Marc Vanholsbeeck, who has ample professional experience as a lecturer at ULB and science policy advisor for the Ministry of the Brussels-Wallonia Federation, but who was speaking on a personal note. “Science communication, as a part of societal impact of research, shouldn’t be a top-down affair, but there should be an adequate framework that supports the efforts made by research communities.” He also promotes initiatives, such as Open Access, that foster sharing of knowledge between a variety of stakeholders within the French-speaking community to increase the societal impact of research. Engagement of researchers through different types of actions with society are also important for societal impact, and there should be incentives and rewards for researchers throughout all stages of their careers to engage in science communication. Organizational change and financial support within institutes, but also at national and European level are key to more science communication resulting in societal impact which would make the cycle of research complete. Marc Vanholsbeeck ended his session on a positive note: “there is already change in the air and the years to come will be interesting to follow Open Science, Science Communication and also science policies”.

Even though this event had to be held online because of the pandemic situation, the enthusiastic sharing of thoughts and knowledge in the chat area sparked interesting debates. Creating closer connections between professionals, educators and researchers in the field through events such a BE.SciComm2021 will hopefully foster even more enthusiasm for expansion and professionalisation of science communication in Belgium.