By Michael Victor and Camilla Zanzanaini
Today I was asked to comment on the terms of reference for a new communication position in our program. It focused on preparing articles, editing science, writing for the web and preparing press releases. For what purpose and for whom, I am not sure.
In parallel with this, there has been a long discussion within communication circles regarding how we work with Public Relations (PR) firms, what makes good PR, what types of headlines we can or cannot write and the associated “ditchwater” affect of having too many people comment on communication pieces.
Scientists are being asked to change, to ensure their research leads to concrete outcomes. As communicators, I wonder if we have really reflected on what needs to change within our own work to support this push towards outcome-based research?
With our limited resources, are we spending too much time on logos, press releases and PR at the expense of helping our research achieve greater impact? Are we ourselves marginalizing our own role in this process?
I think communications can be more than that. There are a number of great initiatives that are already breaking down these stereotypes. Many programs are beginning to develop strategically produced materials and communication processes that help reach different clients (farmers, policy makers, development professionals, investors) that we hope to influence and engage with.
At a recent Knowledge Management and Communication Workshop, we focused on reorienting our work from corporate and administrative activities, towards ways to help researchers achieve outcomes and impact. Some areas of expertise and skills that we can provide are illustrated in the infographic above.
Spurring on the climate change discussion
Our research focuses on many global issues, climate change being one that is always a hot topic. But does everyone have access to or even know the most accurate and up-to-date information? The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has invested a lot of time and energy to get the facts right and help spur on the discussion regarding climate change and agriculture. I heard one project leader say it was like ‘giving birth’. And what an amazing child it is!
The website, graphics and information is presented in an artistic and visually-stimulating way. The complexity and uncertainty of climate science is captured and rendered in easy-to-understand infographics. Here we don’t need to ‘sell’ or spin the work to make it interesting, as the information and style of communication speaks directly to a range of clients whether they be students, businessmen, investors or academics.
Proving before investing
Now here is a novel idea – rather than investing tons of resources into a project before understanding if it will work or not, why not develop a proof of concept first? That is what the Ecosystems Services team from Bioversity International did. Working with students from the University of Idaho in consultation with game design experts, they developed a step-by-step game design that is ready to be turned into a full role-playing video game.
This is a serious game about ecosystem services. The intention is to raise awareness and teach players about integrated landscape management and ecosystem services in a fun and interactive way. By making choices, observing outcomes and adjusting strategy, players will learn how to maximize benefits from specific ecosystem services using different management tactics. They are now looking for a start-up fund but have the base ready to get potential funders and partners interested.
Repackaging science into usable materials
In the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), we have been moving towards transforming science into materials for our clients. One of the first materials created was a beautifully rendered manual on livelihoods and land use planning. Rather than focusing solely on a scientific output, the project decided to produce a manual for district field workers and professionals who can really put our research to use.
At the recent CPWF Mekong Forum, a wide-range of materials was presented as outputs of research – not just stuffy posters and academic presentations, but video lectures, participatory videos, manuals and community-based materials. Communications offers an extensive toolbox that can be tailored to different needs and audiences.
Finally, rather than write another scientific book (which we have also done of course!), CPWF repackaged the science of more than 70 projects into materials for students, teachers and development professionals. A set of “water dialogue posters” helps place water and food issues into perspective. Each poster is designed for brevity, clarity, and accessibility of message. At the same time, each poster is backed up by in-depth research which you can access through an accompanying documentation box, or the CPWF sourcebook – a collection of articles that provide concise information on how, why, and where such methodologies, approaches, and tools have worked in the past and may work in the future. Weighing almost 2kgs, the sourcebook serves multiple purposes, including exercise!
There are many ways that communicators can play a role in helping scientists come down from their ivory towers to engage and produce science that is more relevant to society. But this is not just a challenge for them, we as communicators also have to move beyond our comfort zone and produce materials that are socially relevant.
Comment and let us know : What innovative communications tools are you using to repackage science into usable materials? What are other ways that we can make science more socially relevant?
About the Authors:
Michael Victor is the Communications and Knowledge Management Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.
Camilla Zanzanaini is a Communication and Research Assistant at Bioversity International and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems Program.