“Lights, sound, action! I feel a quick but firm tap on my shoulder, which is a sign that I can now start walking towards the stage through the audience. I must take care not to trip over the camera rails. I go up some stairs. A large group of people looks at me, friendly but full of expectation. Here and there, their faces are flanked by cameras. As I tell the story I have learned by heart, an alarming question briefly flashes through my mind – what the hell have I got myself into?”
Thus wrote cultural sociologist and EUR PhD candidate Julian Schaap on his blog. So what was it he had got himself into? A lecture delivered at the wellknown, shiny black stage of the University of the Netherlands, in the Amsterdam club AIR – definitely the sort of thing that will give you sweaty palms if you are a scholar who normally mainly addresses students and colleagues.
Because the Amsterdam dance floor was full of people who do not deal with science on a daily basis and who had never heard of Schaap’s research before. And there’s more than that. Millions of people watch the videos of the lectures from the comfort of their own sofas on YouTube, Ziggo or Nu.nl.
‘Many viewers interpret such questions politically. They either find me too much of a leftist, or not quite enough of a leftist.’
There are many more places and events where scholars present their work to large audiences in an accessible manner. Take “Science Battle”, in which four PhD candidates battle it out in a theatre. The audience determines by means of an applause meter who best explained his or her research and so wins the battle. Another example is Faces of Science (a partnership between the Jonge Akademie, KNAW and the popular science website NEMO Kennislink), where 54 scholars blog about the research they are carrying out.
Julian Schaap is a cultural sociologist who conducts research on the relationship between musical tastes and inequality between people based on gender and race/ ethnicity.
“Ever since we’ve had the discussions on Black Pete, no one has questioned the point of research on race and ethnicity. I have been very active myself in bringing my work to the attention of a large audience. For instance, at the University of the Netherlands I will ask who has ever been struck by the fact that the great majority of people attending rock concerts are white males.
That appearance garnered me a lot of positive reactions, but also quite a few negative ones. Many viewers interpret such questions politically. They either find me too much of a leftist, or not quite enough of a leftist. It can be frustrating to have to read the nasty comments they leave, but I’m sure I have got those people who leave nasty comments to reflect on the matter. And I do like the idea of that.”
And I do like the idea of that.” “Thanks to my blogs for Faces of Science, I am now exposed to groups I don’t meet every day. I enjoy telling secondary school pupils what sociology is and how music scenes work, and answering questions. This is not just useful to the pupils, but to myself. For instance, I have now incorporated Indorock into my study, because people kept asking me if I was aware of its existence. It is resulting in more work for me, but it does make my study more complete.”
But what is the point of all this hard work? Eveline van Rijswijk, who has seen quite a few professors and PhD students change into science rock stars, knows the answers to this question. After all, she is the editor-in-chief of the University of the Netherlands, which has entered its fourth season and consists of nearly six hundred lectures. Her answer: making science accessible to a large number of people. “These scholars like being able to teach others something online. And they also know that science is communication.”
Julian Schaap confirms this and is often successful in doing so. “After my appearance on the University of the Netherlands, I received an enthusiastic letter from a secondary school pupil who was fascinated by my story. She loved that I conduct research on how music, gender and ethnicity are all tied together. But she was also angry at the large number of white males in rock music. She invited me to come and speak about that at her school in Amsterdam. I immediately said yes, because I think it’s brilliant that a secondary school pupil could be so captured by my research.”
In addition, the dissemination of knowledge is where scholars shine, says Kevin Lamers of the Buzzcapture reputation analysis agency. “This is how they have an impact on society.” In 2015, Buzzcapture conducted a large study of how often scholars appeared on the news (which, among other things, showed that UvA staff members were quoted most frequently). The media are taking a greater interest in scientists now that there is more and more fake news out there, says Lamers. “Journalists are now double-checking their facts with scientists.” Which is good news for them. “Of course universities can tell the outside world why they and their knowledge are so great. But the impact is much greater when professors and PhD students show for themselves what expertise they have by appearing on such shows and giving interviews.”
‘Happiness is not really the kind of subject you will discuss with your colleagues over coffee’
Van Rijswijk says that videos and public performances are indeed causing not just the public at large to be better informed, but scholars to raise their profile in the media. After all, journalists often find it hard to determine what a researcher actually does. For instance, there tends to be very little useful information for journalists on scholars’ profile pages at their universities’ websites, she says. Videos and public performances are better PR material. In addition, the network you build up as a “science rock star” is helpful, too. For instance, Suzanne Streefland, who is responsible for Science Battle and also works as a journalist, regularly provides colleagues with tips if they are looking for experts to make sense of the news.
Moreover, Van Rijswijk feels, the videos are handy if you are trying to get a grant. “They allow you to show at a glance what your research is about and why it matters.” And if a public appearance or video results in a heated public debate, you have shown that your subject matters to society. In addition, a raised profile via public appearances also plays a part in the award of grants.
Martijn Hendriks (left) is a researcher at the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization, whose work focuses on immigrants’ level of happiness. He has appeared on Science Battle four times.
“I don’t just wish to write scientific articles. I also want to introduce the public at large to my research. What really motivates me is when people actually do something with my subject after hearing about it. Happiness is not really the kind of subject you will discuss with your colleagues over coffee, but thanks to Science Battle, people will discuss it at the bar, afterwards.”
“I myself have learned a great deal from Science Battle, as well. Such as how to tell a clear story, without all sorts of slides and charts, but also how to work on my posture and speaking rate.
For instance, I used to talk way too fast. Moreover, I now have a better feel for how to get the audience to interact with me. For instance, statements like ‘midlife crises do exist’ and ‘women tend to be happier than men’ will elicit discussions. Which will then result in new insights on my part, because people will ask questions about happiness that hadn’t even occurred to me. Such as, ‘what is the correlation between happiness and sugar and fat, since we are being bombarded with commercials showing happy people eating ice cream and fatty snacks?’ I advised someone to write a Master’s thesis about that.”
Yet not everyone is keen on the growing importance of media appearances. Henri Beunders, a Professor of Trends in Public Opinion at Erasmus University Rotterdam, follows these developments with a very critical eye. “The amount of money available to scientists is decreasing all the time, so there is more competition among scholars.” In order to be eligible for a grant, studies must increasingly be socially relevant. “Scholars must be able to present their work professionally to be able to receive money. And those who often appear in the media are one up on others, as far as assessment committees are concerned. It’s increasingly about one’s success in the non-academic community.”
‘You need a little showbiz to get your grants’
Take, for instance, Robert Dijkgraaf, someone who, according to Beunders, understands very well that science increasingly needs to prove its value, and also understands that an appearance on talkshow De Wereld Draait Door will help in that regard. However, this also encourages other scholars to do a TedX talk of their own and to make public appearances. “And this should not become their main job, because if it does, science will become too much like showbiz. Geese lay larger eggs, but chickens cackle more loudly. As a result, people are more likely to buy chicken eggs.”
Beunders emphasises that what is most important for scholars is always to keep their eyes set on the final goal, because sometimes it takes twenty years to make a truly important discovery. “You need a little showbiz to get your grants. For some PhD students, public performances can be very motivating, since conducting research for years can be a lonely job. But make sure you don’t turn into a circus performer who is always seeking out the media and devotes all his time to it. Because the moment they stop finding you interesting, they will stop calling. That is the drawback of showbiz.”
Daphne van de Bongardt is a pedagogue and sociologist. She conducts research on relationships and sexuality among adolescents. At the Lowlands festival, she provided a scientific analysis of love and sex, and at the University of the Netherlands, she told adolescents how their parents can improve their sex lives.
“I think it’s important that I present my research to the non-academic world. Few female scholars appear in the media, and pedagogues are hardly ever consulted on subjects related to children, adolescents and child-rearing. There is a lot of room for improvement in that respect.”
“After the recording, I received many favourable responses from the audience. But however much I may have enjoyed the experience, I don’t think all scholars must be required to appear in the media. It does feel that way sometimes. External parties awarding grants to scholars greatly value your sharing your knowledge with a wider audience. However, not all scholars and studies are suited to this. It shouldn’t turn into a form of entertainment.”
“I’ve had some less pleasant experiences, as well. For instance, a few journalists did not allow me to inspect their texts before publication. It’s annoying when something gets published that is incorrect or jumps to conclusions. After all, science is not black and white, and journalists shouldn’t try to turn it into something that is. And there will always be people who will leave nasty comments about your research on the Internet. They’ll piss all over it, leaving comments such as, ‘So this is what my tax money is used for?’ But I try not to let these things get to me, because I believe it’s important that I keep sharing my knowledge of science.”
Pitfalls for science rock stars
#01 The truth can be tough
The editors of Science Battle and the University of the Netherlands prepare scholars for their appearances to the best of their abilities. Even so, the appearances do not always have a happy ending. For instance, during his first appearance on Science Battle, Martijn Hendriks (see inset) mentioned that on average, having children does not make people happier. “This was perhaps a little too controversial for the audience, since their own children do make them happy. As a result, the audience did not believe a word of the study on happiness.” In other words, the truth can be tough to swallow, and does not make you popular. “The next time I appeared on a show I took the evidence with me and explained exactly why children do not make people happy. And now I’m about to become a father myself, which is ironic.”
#02 I know exactly how to tell it
Another pitfall: believing that you know exactly how to tell a story. “Some scholars tell me, ‘I’ve been a lecturer for twenty years,’ but appearing in front of a large audience, with cameras pointed at you, is a different kettle of fish altogether, and it’s nerve-racking,” Van Rijswijk warns. “You’re in a club like some science rock star, and you’re expected to give a bit of a performance.”
#03 Oh no, comments are coming!
Although most responses from the local audiences are favourable, controversial subjects such as racism, climate change and religion may result in unpleasant comments online. “We do prepare the researchers for that, so they know what to expect, but researchers who focus on such subjects tend to be prepared for this sort of thing, anyway,” says Van Rijswijk. “It can be hard to see those nasty comments, but there are plenty of favourable reactions, as well.”