With the UK inquiry into Covid-19 finally underway, 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. Yet there are plenty of lessons to learn.
The pandemic undoubtedly led to a renewed appreciation of research, and many universities understood 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 advocate for science. According to a major global survey, less than half the public thought universities had been important in tackling Covid -19.
Moreover, the pandemic accelerated worrying trends that threaten to undermine the vital work of universities’ science press officers. Given that tacking everything from climate change to health inequality requires public trust and engagement with science, this is concerning.
Science 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 trust in universities and research when it matters the most. Never was this more apparent than during the pandemic.
Over the past six months, I have interviewed many science press officers working in universities across the UK. I have also run surveys, spoken with university leaders and commissioned focus groups with researchers. The aim has been to gain a better-informed insight into this crucial area of science communication and how it has changed in the two decades since the Science Media Centre was set up. What I have heard should give pause for thought.
There is much to celebrate in how science communication has become established in universities; the arguments about why researchers and their universities need to communicate have mostly been won. Teams of talented press and communications experts have grown, bringing the skills and experience needed to translate complex science and support researchers in the media spotlight. But now it seems there are an ever-increasing number of challenges for science press officers to overcome. As a result, many of those I surveyed have considered leaving their job.
The remit and responsibilities of these specialists have expanded substantially, including the number and types of audiences they must engage with. Communications teams are faced, too, with a plethora of digital channels and tools that, while offering greater control of their messages, do not always reach the widest audiences. And as universities find themselves under greater financial and political pressure, there is also increased focus on reputation management. Unsurprisingly, science press officers’ work-life balance has all but disappeared.
Many now feel under-resourced and, at times, they have the perception that research communication is being squeezed out by competition from other university priorities, such as student recruitment. Marketisation and the students-as-customers mindset have also changed the way some universities communicate. There are good reasons for this, but it may inadvertently erode some of the progress 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 must recognise the significant challenges they already face and be realistic about what might change. But there are things that they, working alongside the rest of the science community, can do to make a difference. In many cases, even small changes would go a long way.
Universities need to recognise that getting their researchers into the media not only improves public trust in science but directly benefits their brand and ability to attract the best talent. Universities should therefore value and adequately resource research communication and media relations, protecting them from the unintended consequences of pressure from other communications priorities.
Universities that lack resources to fully implement such ways of working may be surprised by how much difference can be made by the way they value communications teams. In general, most science 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 deal with the trials of the job. What they often find difficult, however, is when their hard-earned expertise is not valued as it should be, especially by colleagues at a senior level.
Vice-chancellors, directors of advancement and other university leaders could therefore give more thought to the way they support press and communications officers. At the moment, it can seem as if minimal consideration is given to their career development, especially regarding those who are more experienced and likely to be dealing with significant complex challenges while providing a crucial strategic service to their university.
It was university researchers who were advising government, producing vaccines to get us out of lockdown and, critically, appearing regularly in the news to share essential information as the pandemic unfolded. But this would not have been possible without the experienced specialist science press officers the UK is lucky to have. The higher education sector and the rest of the science community should do everything they can to support them if we are to tackle future societal challenges and retain trust in research and universities.
Helen Jamison is an independent science communications consultant. She has previously worked at the Science Media Centre, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Wellcome Trust and Nature.