Why Research Communication Matters

By Sharada Kerkar

Research Communication | Source: Illustration by Sharada Kerkar

Academicians all over the globe engage in rigorous research that has the potential to influence our daily lives. The outcomes from research can improve educational results, better nutrition among infants, make agricultural practices efficient, enhance implementation of policies or bring new antibiotics to the markets, thus having a broad range of impact on several aspects of our lives (Goubert, 2018).The implication of research on our everyday lives, makes research not only a tool to build knowledge and facilitate learning among the student and scientist communities, but also a means to understand problems and strengthen public awareness. It enables the common man to decode misinformation and make more informed decisions (Zarah, 2022).

However, despite its importance to every individual, most research continues to reside within the boundaries of academic institutions, beyond the reach of the larger public. The usefulness of research to solve the world’s problems can only be attainable when it is communicated to policy makers and all the people whose lives it can impact. The upcoming discipline of research communication thus plays a vital role in making research accessible to all its stakeholders and ensures that the efforts don’t go wasted (Isabel Carter, 2010).

Understanding Research Communication

Research Communication is not limited to the dissemination of research outcomes but is defined as the process of translating the jargon-filled language of research into a form that non-experts can easily comprehend. Research communication is not the same as marketing and involves a process of transforming complex research results into a format and context that reflects the needs of the end users. Effective and innovative research communication can thus be a vital tool for advocacy of issues that are relevant and can make a difference to the public (Isabel Carter, 2010).

Research Cycle |Source: Adapted from University of British Columbia, https://medicine.med.ubc.ca/research/research-cycle/

Traditionally, the process of research involves- carrying out the research, writing an academic paper and publishing the findings. It does not consider the users or beneficiaries of the research until the end of the research cycle as shown in the figure above. However, the proponents of research communication view users as active participants in shaping the research process and not merely as passive receivers of information. The stakeholders from the academic community, media, to civil society, each operate with a sense of responsibility and ownership, fostering a two-way communication channel between the outside and ‘inside’ world of research.

Channels of research dissemination

Digital technologies offer a great opportunity to innovatively communicate research and disseminate it to a wider audience. Beyond the traditional modes of research dissemination like journal articles, books, and conference demonstrations, effective research communication uses both online and offline spaces to engage with their audiences. The use of interactive web-based technologies, social media like TED talks, YouTube videos, television and radio shows have helped tremendously in reaching non-research audiences. In addition, offline tools, and spaces such as comics, magazines, games or science cafes, slam contests, and hackerspaces designed to increase participation among stakeholders have emerged as a way to further engage with research (Ross-Hellauer et al, 2020).

However, the adoption of these methods is often accompanied by language barriers, technological inefficiencies, resource scarcity and the cultural norms of the target audience. It is thus imperative to contextualise the messaging and appropriately select the type of research findings before communicating it to the users (Isabel Carter, 2010). Further, it is also essential to consider the timing of launching the communication to ensure that the public is ready to receive it.

There are many real-life examples of innovative and effective ways of communicating research. Giulia Enders won the first place at the Berlin Science Slam and created a You Tube video sharing her work about the human gut, which eventually was viewed by over a million people. The Great Immensity, a theatrical performance was produced by a New-York based theatre company to talk about the intricacies of climate change. Another interesting initiative ‘Dance your PhD contest’ is an annual contest organised by Science magazine that allows scientists to translate their work into a dance performance (Ross-Hellauer et al, 2020). Lastly, Researchista an organisation advocating for effective research communication, developed an offline and online game to impact education on taxation among adults and young ones. All these initiatives have been successful in translating hard-core research into easy, useful and creative forms and can be an inspiration for emerging researchers.

Tool to Empower

Investing in research communication translates into investing in a conscious and well-informed citizenry. The skill to communicate research that has implications on development indices, should be considered a public good to generate public awareness (Isabel Carter, 2010).

The role of research communication goes beyond information sharing and lies in bridging the gap between the academicians and the public. It is about driving a conversation, building mutual engagement, and thus bringing research closer to the people. Research communication is a useful tool and holds great value for the future generations to create an aware and informed society (Goubert, 2018).

Sharada Kerkar is a Senior Consultant- Design at Justice Adda and a Masters Candidate in Public Policy and Human Development at Maastricht University