Frequent exchange with non-scientists enables research to be more relevant

Professor Dorothea Kübler talks about science communication and Open Science

Photo of Professor Dorothea Kübler
Photo: David Ausserhofer

Three key learnings:

  • Open science communication allows you to critically reflect your own weaknesses and to come up with new ideas.
  • If you plan to start with science communication you should know the answer to these two questions: What is the big issue that drives me? And what is my small contribution to solving this big issue?
  • It is important to communicate honestly and transparently how science works and not to hide problems such as p-hacking or forking.

You are co-editor of the popular science book “Zeitenwende”. You give interviews on TV and radio, you write guest columns, there’s a lot of media exposure for your research. Why do you invest so much time and effort in science communication?

DK: I see science communication as part of my job at the WZB. And I like it, even if it can be a challenge. Part of the challenge is to explain my own research so that it is relevant and comprehensible. Another part is to answer questions that do not directly relate to my own research but go beyond it, and which require well-founded assessments instead of mere speculation.

Do you get feedback that advances your career and your work?

DK: One thing I find motivating is that during preparation I often get new ideas and rephrase my questions. For instance by considering whether my experiments are relevant for big research questions and what exactly the big research questions are. Another is that I enjoy exchanging ideas, receiving feedback and being asked critical questions. This is also about the blind spots in my own discipline. As an economist I have a very individualistic view of human behaviour. When I talk to colleagues from other disciplines or people in the general public, I get a new perspective on human behaviour. It is helpful to bear in mind that as an economist you look only at one side of the phenomenon.

How do you succeed in presenting the subject of your research understandably?

DK: By practising a lot. For instance, it is helpful to write a text for your own webpage where you need to get to the heart of your research. It reminds you why you’re doing it and you can explain better what you’re doing. Sometimes you are so much stuck in the details that phrasing becomes difficult and you lose sight of the big picture of your work.

Do you have tips for young researchers regarding science communication?

DK: One important point you often quickly forget as a scientist is: what is the big issue that drives me? And what is my small contribution to solving this big issue? What do I add? The big issue must be clear to make the research interesting. I wasn’t able to do that, for a long time, it is a process. The other point is to take away the fear that they will do something wrong or will be misunderstood. The first thing is to arouse interest, and for that you don’t need a perfectly stage-managed show.

How do you succeed in avoiding technical jargon so that the general public will understand the texts?

DK: That’s a very important point, and again it’s a matter of practice. It can be helpful to write with a particular person in mind, maybe your great-aunt to whom you want to explain the topic. You can also write down everything for yourself and then deliberately strike out the technical terms. Again, it is a learning process. It’s a different aspiration to write for a non-expert public. You have to live with the fact that it won’t be precisely expressed.

Young scientists tell again and again that they have no time for doing science communication. Is science communication a luxury only professors can afford?

DK: Depending on the subject I’m interviewed about I don’t find it time-consuming. A radio interview about the progess of your own research is quickly done. Of course there are requests where you need to do a bit of thinking. Maybe it’s a question of young researchers having had a bad experience. And because it can be quite difficult, I have now initiated the project Economic Insights: Transfer and Capacity Building (BSE Insights) where young people are trained for communicating with the public and which is funded by the Leibniz Association. It teaches everything from writing texts to tweets. I think it’s important that the media don’t interview the same people all the time, the concert needs more voices. Early career researchers should be instructed, but in the end they need to do it themselves.

Have you written texts or tweets which set the ball rolling?

DK: Yes. There have been two issues that generated much interest in the public. There was a study about the discriminiation of women in the market for training. Gender is a topic everyone is interested in. The study showed that women are particularly badly discriminated against in male-dominated jobs. A few weeks ago I published a paper about the black market for appointments in German consulates abroad. Online appointment-booking systems are causing problems everywhere in the world, so there really is a black market for such appointments. Foreigners are faced with particular difficulties to make appointments for some classes of visa. It’s doubtful the situation will change, but we have played an active part in the discussion and raised awareness of the problem. It’s not a classically economic topic, and so I am happy about the attention.

In short, you want to have a share in making changes?

DK: In all humility, you can only address partial aspects of a problem, but contributing to a solution is definitely one of my goals.

Where do you see the possibilities and the limits of science communication?

DK: Science communication fulfils different tasks. For one thing, to arouse interest in science and to give to the public a sense of what is being done and what the main results are. That’s important and I believe that even more should be done. Detailed findings are more relevant to experts, in my opinion. And there’s no need to pretend that everyone is interested in all the details. It’s also a fact that the various disciplines are subject to their own developments and rationales, especially in basic research, that bear little relation to current societal issues.

Science communication is not only about presenting the results, but also about explaining how science works. Would you say that this is truly of high interest?

DK: Research processes, framework conditions, and the whole science system per se are as complex as a research finding. I don’t know if laypeople are interested in the finer details of this. But there should be efforts to explain in generally comprehensible terms which methods have been used. Otherwise you cannot understand the findings. But methods are certainly not tempting enough, you need more content to make people pay attention. In my opinion it is highly important, and that’s what Christian Drosten has been praised for a lot, to emphasise again and again the procedural nature of science. Of course it’s irritating for politicians and others when the state of knowledge changes again, but that is how science works. And you also need to make it very clear that a single study is not decisive. You always need to look further.

There are some studies showing that peer review is not as unbiased as hoped for; that p-hacking occurs even when peer review is applied; that most results cannot be replicated; that findings with negative results are not accepted by editors; that the number of papers withdrawn because of falsified data has risen steadily over the last years. How far should this be laid open to outsiders through science communication? How comprehensively may the working of the science system be communicated?

DK: This is a big issue for everyone working empirically. There is much debate about the replication crisis and p-hacking among experimental economists. Requirements are changing right now, so that more studies are being pre-registered, i.e. the research questions and the study methods are defined in advance. If I deviate from the questions and the methods later, I must give reasons. It’s a dynamic field. The discipline is evolving intensely right now and the norms are changing, too: e.g. how detailed must my documentation be so reviewers can retrace everything at a glance. There’s a controversial debate about it in economic research. Pre-registration is important in field experiments which cannot be easily repeated. How do you embed all this in communication? Of course it feeds the doubts about science when you see in minute detail how much is done that is scientifically unsound – p-hacking and forking are nice examples for this. But I believe that this should also be laid open to outsiders and communicated.

For instance, there’s the Award for Research Integrity of the Einstein Foundation. This is about shining a light on people who show creative ideas for solving such problems. I think it would be unethical to be silent about the problems science is struggling with.

Would you agree that social scientists and economists have a special responsibility regarding science communication?

DK: Yes, I believe that the social sciences study issues that are often important and of interest to the general public. But other areas, such as medicine, are also of general interest. In principle, all disciplines should wake an interest in what they do and explain it. The public have a stake in this because they finance science, after all. Scientific knowledge is created in the global interaction of researchers. And the public should get a chance to understand what knowledge is in production globally. This is important for the acceptance of science.

Where do you see the future of Open Science? Open Science seen as an overarching term for open research processes and an opening of the science system towards society?

DK: On the one hand, Open Science is about reproducibility and verifiability. It holds out the hope that research improves and that there will be fewer false results circulating for a long time. On the other hand it’s also about the gap between rich and poor countries. During the pandemic, one of my colleagues started to open online courses at Western universities to students from the global South. He has developed a platform where students can see for which courses they can enrol and get credits (remotestudentexchange.org). So people can attend good university classes wherever they are. I think that’s an impressive kind of Open Science. And of course it’s a matter of inequality and justice. Your question is pretty complex. I also believe that you can do more relevant research if you talk more to non-scientists, because you can see your own weaknesses better and you come up with new ideas. I got involved in the black market issue through conversations with practitioners. And now it has turned into a paper in a top journal. We would never have found this topic on our own. My hope is that Open Science will make research better and politics more evidence-based.  And I also hope that politicians and the public will better understand that researchers can only make discoveries if they are provided with data.

Thank you!

The questions were asked by Dr Doreen Siegfried.

About Professor Dorothea Kübler

Dorothea Kübler is director of the department “Market Behaviour” at Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and professor of economics at the Technical University of Berlin. In her research she uses experimental methods and game theory to study decision behaviour and market design. In the last years, her papers addressed the central allocation of study places in Germany, the influence of social and moral norms on behaviour in markets, and educational decisions and discrimination in the labour market. In 2020, Dorothea Kübler received the Schader Prize.

Dorothea Kübler is a member of the Senate of the German Research Foundation (DFG), Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, deputy chairperson of the Einstein Foundation Berlin and Vice President Europe of the Economic Science Association (ESA). She is a founding member of the European network “Matching in Practice” and a member of the Collaborative Research Centre CRC TRR 190 “Rationality and Competition” and of the Excellence Cluster SCRIPTS.

Contact: https://www.wzb.eu/de/personen/dorothea-kuebler

ORCID-ID: 0000-0002-0289-8382

Twitter: @DorotheaKuebler




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