For me Open Science means communication

Peter Haan talks about his experience with Open Science

Photo of Professor Dr. Peter Haan

Three key learnings:

  • The methods and tools of science communication must be learned just like methods of empirical research.
  • In science communication it is important to present not only your findings, but also the additional benefit of your work for science and society.
  • Public relations and transfer are growing ever more important in the work of scientists. Therefore it makes sense to familiarise yourself with the basic methods.

What does Open Science mean to you and your daily work?

PH: In my work, Open Science means mostly communication. The question is how we can take our scientific findings, our methods and our questions to the public and enrich the discourse.

Was there a specific moment when you got interested in Open Science in the sense of science communication?

PH: Science communication has always interested me in principle. What bothers me so far is that economic issues are usually addressed in the media by generalists, and economists who work directly on these research problems tend to be less in the public eye. During the CoVID crisis I watched how other disciplines communicated skilfully and managed to educate the public about technical terms and articles in scholarly journals. It set me thinking about how we could improve science communication in economics, so that even complex findings can be brought to the public.

You and Professor Dorothea Kübler jointly head the project INSIGHTS. What is your vision for project INSIGHTS?

PH: Our vision is to have more experts who bring the findings from their domains to the public. In my opinion, that is much more difficult than it sounds, for three reasons. For one thing it is really arduous to describe complex phenomena in plain language. Another thing is that it can be difficult to find access to media platforms and to be visible there. For the media of course it’s much easier to talk to prominent researchers who can communicate clearly and who can be contacted quickly. And the third reason is that politicians prefer to talk with well-known scientists, because they have more impact. We want to see young researchers learning how to communicate plainly and clearly. Science communication, just like other domains, has its methods and techniques that we must learn. We must learn how to build networks and how to approach journalists.

Are there any reflection processes about who the public is, and is the so-called public segmented into subgroups?

PH: We try to reach different target groups through different media. Right now we are trying to do this with social media and classic media, i.e. newspapers, TV and radio.

Is INSIGHTS limited to PhD candidates in Berlin or can people from other cities also participate?

PH: That is definitely planned for the future. When the INSIGHTS funding from the Leibniz Association ends, we would like to open most of the elements of INSIGHTS and make them accessible to interested people from other regions. The workshops that we organise are already open to all.

The website of INSIGHTS says that one of the goals is to inform representatives from politics. What do typical politicians want to know about economic research?

PH: The field is very heterogeneous. The chances for a young researchers to meet directly with a minister are very small. The main communication, that we also organise in Round Tables, happens at the departmental level. Those are the people who prepare decision-making and write treatments of academic papers for the top level. These are usually people who are very much familiar with the topic so that communication works very well at this level.

What are the biggest obstacles for scientists that must be overcome in science communication?

PH: The biggest obstacle is to present complex issues in plain language without the technical terms used in academic writing. You also have to explain the additional benefit your work offers and how it contributes to the bigger picture. For me, the most important thing is this: it is essential that we learn to communicate what we don’t know. Scientists know their field and they know exactly where there are still uncertainties. That’s why I think it’s highly dangerous to interview only the economics media stars as generalists, because they’re not familiar enough with all problems studied in economics. But the media and politics often demand statements about things where comparatively little is known yet. Media-savvy economists often find it very hard to stand up and say that they don’t know exactly. But it is the job of researchers in all fields to mark the uncertainties clearly. Who, if not us, can say that there still are uncertainties?

What is the role of replications in arguing certainty?

PH: To me, replication means that you have done proper empirical work. Documenting everything is a very important precondition in my opinion, no matter how and with whom we communicate. It is also essential for the communication among scientists themselves.

Why do your PhD candidates take the time to write texts in plain language, do camera training, etc.? What’s their motivation?

PH: Their main motivation is that they are passionate about their research and they want the public to know about it. Of course it’s very frustrating for a scientist to spend years on a project and to see that nobody is interested in it. The doctoral students want more visibility for their research topic. To gain a professorship later on, it’s most of all the academic publications which count, not the media presence. And in my view that’s allright because we are scientists, not media communicators. But it’s very clear that public relations and transfer are an ever more important part of the work. People know this, and people want this.

What is the role of self-reflection on one’s own responsibility to do science communication for politics really well?

PH: Self-reflection matters a lot to us! That’s why we have built it into our INSIGHTS project. In practice it means that we discuss the experience after communication with experts or journalists has taken place: What did this communication achieve, and what not? For instance, if there has been a newspaper article about my research, I should check whether my core messages have been noticed at all. Were the quotes that have been used helpful, or should I have changed them again? Young researchers must learn how to deal with the media and not sell themselves short.

Do you share your data?

PH: That’s comparatively easy in my case because I work a lot with data from the Socio-Economic Panel or with administrative data that are freely available. Codes must be made available for good publications. That’s the standard that is established or enforced, and that enables replicability. I benefit very much from people who have published their data and their strategies which I can use for my teaching. As a researcher, I have been contacted several times by students who want to replicate my work and then ask me what I did and how I reached this result. Then you quite often ask yourself how you did that and find it difficult to retrace your own work which you did ten years ago. But I also see that replication reinforces the learning process of students. So yes, I think much of data sharing.

Is there a new openness among doctoral students to address Open Science?

PH: Among the younger cohorts there are more and more people who work with programmes like GitHub, so the openness is always there by definition. And if there are four or five people who form a network, it’s easy for other doctoral candidates to integrate and to use the same strategies. Having a critical mass is important.

How do you learn good science communication?

PH: In my opinion the combination of theory and practice is very important. It’s only effective if you can apply the theory you learned in a course immediately in practice. That’s why INSIGHTS has a modular structure. In the first courses we discuss what good science communication consists of. And then we follow up with more specific courses about social media, how to write policy briefings and opinion pieces. In one of the courses I teach students can bring their finished scientific paper and rewrite it as a policy brief. At the end we simulate a press conference. We invite two or three journalists to whom the students must present their results. In return, the journalists ask critical questions just like in real life.

Thank you!

Dr Doreen Siegfried conducted the interview on 2 November 2022.

About Professor Peter Haan

Peter Haan is Professor of Empirical Economics at FU Berlin a heads the Department of Public Economics at DIW Berlin. In his research he evaluates the effects of demographic change and social policy reforms – in particular old age pension reforms – and quantifies their labour market and distribution effects. He publishes his research in leading journals, among them the Economic Journal, the Journal of Health Economics, the Journal of Econometrics or the Journal of Public Economics. Professor Peter Haan is one of the project managers of INSIGHTS, the platform for exchange between researchers, political decision makers and the public.




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