Researchers are expected to communicate scientific findings and actively engage in public discourse. Addressing the public, however, can be quite a daunting task, especially for younger academics. Drawing from more than two decades of experience, Stine Liv Johansen, from Aarhus University, reflects on the challenges and opportunities that public outreach entails.
Stine Liv Johansen, affiliated with Aarhus University, is one of the Nordic region’s leading researchers on young people and media. Johansen’s research primarily centres around the media usage of children and adolescents within both institutional and non-institutional contexts. She is also an active participant in the public debate on the subject in Denmark. Her extensive experience in this realm prompted us to seek her insights on the topic of public outreach.
Anna Pacholczyk (AP): How do you recall embarking on your involvement in public outreach? In your view, what defines good science communication?
Stine Liv Johansen (SLJ): I research young people’s relationship with media, a subject that has always captivated public interest. 20 years ago, when I commenced on my academic journey, it was predominantly journalists who initiated contact and were reaching out with invitations to debate the subject. However, as time has progressed, my public outreach endeavours have evolved into a more deliberate process with substantial investments of time and effort.
In my opinion, good research communication allows people to think about things that they may take for granted. It provides new perspectives. I’ve stressed on multiple occasions that science communication is not just about delivering specific answers but also about asking the right questions.
Science communication is not just about delivering specific answers but also about asking the right questions.
This approach encourages the public, in my case, to think critically about how we want our children to engage with media.
AP: Does your engagement in public outreach transcend mere duty? Are there any personal rewards or advantages you find in communicating and actively taking part in public debates?
SLJ: To begin, yes: Research dissemination is a core component of my job responsibilities. There are various approaches to carry out this task, but in a publicly funded university in Denmark, it is an obligatory endeavour that we must undertake.
But it extends beyond this. Around ten to twelve years ago, I began using Twitter extensively. Back then, Twitter was a space where I could meet new people and engage in meaningful discussions on topics that mattered to me. It allowed me to establish a wide and diverse network, connecting with teachers and professionals in public administration. This experience held profound personal and professional significance for me, as many people came to recognise me and my research through this platform.
AP: Has this active participation, including on platforms like Twitter (now X), influenced your capabilities as a researcher? Has it made you a better scientist?
SLJ: On occasions, my active participation in public debates has proven to be somewhat counterproductive for my research endeavours. This diversion of my time towards compiling op-eds and their subsequent follow-ups, rather than dedicating it to the writing of journal articles, has resulted in me being a less efficient researcher (chuckles).
However, I am convinced that the same engagement, along with the valuable feedback I’ve received, has allowed me to ask better research questions. It has expanded my network, consequently provided me with a better understanding of what is happening in schools and daycare settings.
AP: Public debates often fall short in terms of engaging in nuanced perspectives. I value your opinion on this issue.
SLJ: If someone were to describe my role in the public debate concerning children and media in Denmark, they might characterise me as someone who consistently strives to preserve and emphasize the finer points. I am aware that this approach can be perceived as somewhat annoying by some, but in this particular debate, I believe that oversimplification is a common pitfall. It tends to revolve around binary discussions of screen or no screen, and screen time, while I persist in trying to highlighting the multitude of nuances inherent in how different children engage with media. My focus is on adding depth and promoting diverse perspectives. I acknowledge, however, that this is a topic which many people, including parents and politicians, have strong opinions on, and I try my best to balance my engagement in the debate accordingly.
AP: Do you take into consideration how both your scientific colleagues and the public you are communicating with react to your messages? The online ecosystem especially is, by many scientists, perceived as hostile, discouraging them from engaging in discussions. What can be crucial in surmounting the fear or reluctance towards public outreach?
SLJ: I completely understand why some may feel that the online ecosystem is hostile. While I haven’t personally experienced much aggression, I have encountered situations that could be seen as potential threats, even when discussing seemingly innocuous topics like children and media. I understand that this can be very hard, especially for young and female colleagues. I’ve heard of incidents researchers have faced, which should never have happened. I know that the fear is there.
I’ve heard of incidents researchers have faced, which should never have happened. I know that the fear is there.
We may not be able to change the nature of social media and how it operates, nor can we entirely prevent such incidents from occurring; however, as research communities, we can promote open and supportive discussions on this issue. This way, when we encounter challenging situations, we know where to seek help and support. It’s essential to be aware of colleagues and administrative staff who are knowledgeable about the law, as well as the backing we receive from our management – which has been significant for me. I remember a particular incident from a few years ago when a debate got heated, and our former dean stepped in on the comment section on Twitter to express support. It meant a lot to me.
The feeling of being supported and knowing that the leadership has your back, although it sounds cliché, is incredibly important. Open discussions about the challenges in science communication and public outreach are crucial. Knowing I have colleagues who stand by me has kept me going.
AP: On a final note, what should scientists be particularly mindful of when engaging in public outreach?
SLJ: Apart from the obvious, such as disclosing any personal or professional ties to an organisation or industry related to the topic, make sure you see what you are being quoted for and take note of the other sources cited in the same article where you are featured. While this practice might appear mundane, its importance should not be underestimated.