QUEST: Looking for quality and effectiveness in SciComm
How to define, measure and support quality in science communication? Interview with Alessandra Fornetti, coordinator of the European Project QUEST
After more than two years into the pandemic, the urgent need for reliable and effective scientific information has become ever more apparent. This need is driven by a variety of stakeholders and is nothing new. Other issues, such as climate change and vaccines, have been around for years, but they had not yet - at least not up to this point - managed to jeopardise the relationship between science and society. But the global pandemic ruptured the fragile balance of this challenging relationship. And the results are there for all to see. Why has this happened, and more importantly, how do we deal with that challenge?
The two-year EU-funded project QUEST (QUality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology Communication) took up the challenge of defining, measuring, and supporting quality in science communication to provide society with reliable, effective, and clear information. QUEST’s actions are aimed at empowering society as a whole in making well-informed decisions about science, particularly on topics having an impact on people’s daily lives. These objectives have been achieved through innovative approaches that have aimed to promote engagement with the comprehensive spectrum of science communication stakeholders.
«The QUEST project is a collaborative and multidisciplinary consortium of eight partners from different fields of scientific communication in six European countries, Italy, Estonia, UK, France, Ireland, Norway», explains Alessandra Fornetti, Executive Director of the TEN Program on Sustainability at the Venice International University (VIU) and QUEST coordinator.
Most of QUEST’s activity took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when the amount of information has almost overwhelmed citizens and its quality has often proved to be questionable.
The quality in QUEST
«We started working on quality by focusing on those who concretely communicate science to clearly detect their point of view and the perceived barriers to quality in science communication. This first reflection set the scene for the subsequent actions: identifying possible solutions to tackle obstacles and develop useful resources to guide professionals willing to communicate science effectively», says Alessandra Fornetti.
These resources are freely available in the QUEST toolkits, developed to help science communicators improve the effectiveness of their communication activities.
Scientists, university and research institute governance staff, journalists and editors, museum explainers, social media content managers, and citizens were actively involved in the project, and their mutual interaction resulted in the 12 Quality Indicators for Science Communication.
«We love to call them guiding principles as they guide, orient, and inspire individuals committed to producing quality science communication. We got there through the intense interaction among science communication stakeholders. Quality mapping exercises were held in each project country and elements that stakeholders consider indicative of quality have been subsequently condensed into the 12 QUEST indicators. These can be used by anyone to assess quality in different strands of science communication: journalism, social media, and museums».
3 pillars and 12 quality indicators for SciComm
Trustworthiness and scientific rigour, presentation and style, connection with the society: according to the QUEST projects, these are the 3 pillars for good science communication. The 3 pillars lead to 12 indicators, all within a single quality framework.
«The indicators, distilled from the stakeholder mapping exercise, have been organised into three pillars. Identifying the pillars has proved to be quite challenging, but it is an essential key to understanding how to cluster indicators. We all – particularly the Estonian partner responsible for this task – had to make a concerted effort in condensing a large number of valuable stakeholders’ inputs into a single descriptor».
The QUEST single framework of quality components has its own peculiarities: «This framework can be used to assess all formats of science communication, regardless of the scientific issue we are dealing with. Also, the framework can be easily applied to inform, educate or engage the target, regardless of where the communication takes place; journalism, social media, museums, or elsewhere».
«The 12 indicators are also telling us that quality needs to be considered as having a multidimensional nature. It is the result of a combination of different elements», Fornetti points out.
When reviewing contemporary literature on the subject, the QUEST single framework of quality stands out as a concrete answer to the plethora of unconsolidated guidelines on quality in science communication.
The intense engagement of science communication stakeholders has been key for the QUEST project. Different science communication producers and consumers have been involved since the very beginning. They helped co-design project approaches, identifying everyday barriers they face as well as possible solutions.
«Our stakeholder provided their feedback throughout the project, as they have also been involved in the testing and validation phase of relevant tools, thus properly contributing to their effectiveness and impact. We chose to group stakeholders according to their professional backgrounds. As an example, scientists provided their input regarding barriers they perceive when communicating their research, directly or mediated by journalists. Following this first step, they provided possible solutions to overcome the barriers. Finally, they participated in the process of developing specific tools to tackle the issue. Different groups of scientists took part in the different phases of design, testing, and validating. These groups were also engaged in preparing both the final version of the tools and the related policy recommendations».
According to the project needs, stakeholders have been grouped by similitude or shuffled completely.
«Their engagement - says Fornetti - proved to be really effective. They interacted easily right from the start and this synergy definitely helped involve peers, significantly widening the QUEST network. We launched a call for sharing, asking scientists to share through Twitter the QUEST poster on checklist for scientists and it resulted in great participation, with scholars showing their Labs with the poster in the background».
But ‘managing’ stakeholders was not as easy as it might seem. «The most critical but key moment of the engagement process was definitely the onset. We had to focus on the stakeholders’ identification and selection bearing in mind that we needed effective stakeholders and professionals willing to share their experience and cooperate concretely».
Dealing with a variety of stakeholders, with different contexts and backgrounds, offered the opportunity to discuss on a number of levels. «I have the feeling that it has been easier for me to discuss and share with scholars and scientists. But my point of observation is that of an academic, so I feel more comfortable with researchers. However, the QUEST partnership configuration reflected the variety of stakeholders involved in the project. We had science communication scholars as well as journalism departments and professionals. We also brought into the exchange our own way of sharing, cooperating, and of course our own engagement. Being a close-knit group helped us to set a good example for our stakeholders».
But this is not the only challenge while dealing with stakeholders, Alessandra Fornetti points out: «Young scholars, to stick to this example, are generally more aware of the value of communicating their work, particularly through social media. So they are willing to acquire more skills in managing such media. However, they show the same concerns as their older colleagues when it comes to interacting with the relevant communication staff of their research institutes. And even more, challenging is sharing their findings with journalists, including scientific journalists. Certainly, there are some gaps to fill precisely in communication among the main actors of the science communication ecosystem».
Communication is a skill and must be learned and practiced as such.
Training towards quality
Science communication training has also been investigated in QUEST: «We mapped science communication training offers across Europe - says Alessandra Fornetti. There has been significant growth in the number of such courses in recent years. Unfortunately, quite a good number have not succeeded in getting recognition and being established at the institutional level».
«We need to understand the reasons for this in order to reverse the trend. In QUEST, we had a couple of training experiences with young oceanographers and environmental economists and both proved to be successful. After project completion, we were also invited to provide training to journalists in South Africa and this shows the great interest and needs for training on the subject of science communication for all stakeholders», points out Alessandra Fornetti.
You can read more about it in this blog post and explore the QUEST interactive map.
If you know of any relevant courses on Science Communication or Science Journalism in Europe not included in the QUEST map, you can let us know by clicking here.
But not only do scientists need to improve their communication skills. Fornetti highlights: «Communicating is a cross-disciplinary competence affecting stakeholders involved in QUEST and beyond. We have also been asked to provide training to social sciences professors, which we might consider for the future. Once again, the request clearly highlights the need for training and raising the awareness on science and research communication as well as on the different role of each of the actors involved».
Improving the quality of science communication is a continuous challenge. And QUEST’s ‘lessons learned’ can be extremely valuable for stakeholders working on similar topics.
«It is important not to dissipate the knowledge resulting from EU projects working on this topic. The ENJOI Observatory could be the place where all such outputs can be gathered and made available to all, from scientists to journalists, from policy and decision-makers to citizens», says Alessandra Fornetti.
ENJOI itself is intensively committed to engaging a wide range of stakeholders both in the Engagement Workshops and the Labs, building a think tank to improve the quality of science communication and journalism. And here is a piece of advice from QUEST: «I would suggest to listen to all and contemporarily not to listen to anyone. The huge amount of data provided by the stakeholders needs to be condensed to properly distill what is fundamental to the project. It’s a quite demanding exercise that requires a great deal of flexibility».
Creating bridges and connecting different experiences is a key aspect to develop good practices. That’s why the passing of the torch between projects working on science communication can help improve the quality of science communication itself.