Why aren't scientists treated as celebrities?

Scientists in mass media
"Only those who sharpen will be noticed"

Out of the laboratory and into the spotlight: More and more scientists are looking for a way to become public. Some well-known researchers to media scientist Dr. Beatrice Dernbach in talks for her book “From the ivory tower into the limelight. Prominent Scientists in Popular Mass Media ”.

Media scientist Dr. Beatrice Dernbach | © Photo: Wilfried Wittern Mrs. Dr. Dernbach, what is driving the German scientists from the ivory tower into the limelight?

Almost all of the people I spoke to said that, as scientists, they also see it as their duty to do research for society and to pass on their knowledge. It goes without saying that this is not just about the trade journals.

How do the scientists draw attention to themselves?

This includes, for example, summarizing a study in a way that attracts the media to it. Prominent scientists such as the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer or the historian Michael Wolffsohn have confirmed this to me: Anyone who does not point things out is not noticed by the media. And vice versa: Whoever is able to present something very briefly and pointedly becomes the favorite child of the media.

Once the scientist has reached the mass media - what are the consequences of his appearance there for him?

It is a double-edged matter that the scientist engages in in the media world. On the one hand, of course, he enjoys the attention. However, all of the 14 people I interviewed said that young scientists should be careful about exposing their faces to the public too often via popular media. It may be counterproductive if you want to continue applying in your academic career. Any age is forbidden to take a position on anything and everything. Otherwise it says: "Oh God, this one again, he must have something to say about everything".

In the introduction to your book, you mention that science in Germany is more hesitant about working with the mass media than in other countries. How does it look elsewhere?

In comparative studies, for example by Hans Peter Peters from Forschungszentrum Jülich, and in discussions with scientists who have experience abroad, it was confirmed, especially for the USA, that the standing of scientists here is different than in Germany. It starts with the fact that scientific literature in the USA never reaches such a level of abstraction as in the German language. In Germany it is still a dirty word when a scientist is "popular". In the US it seems more natural to communicate science. It is not frowned upon to approach popular media with a provocative thesis. Who in the US is not in the New York Times has appeared on the science website, it is also not noticed.

Since when has there been a trend in science in Germany to reach out more to the public?

For about 20 years. There have been initiatives like Public Understanding of Science and Humanities (PUSH) and Science in dialogue Founded by the major scientific institutions in Germany. There the scientists realized: We have to coordinate communication more closely, think about actions to bring science to the public.

What does this mean for the individual scientist?

The scientist comes under greater pressure to present himself to the outside world. This is also a common perception of my interview partners: The allocation of funds and funds is based on which discipline and which topic is currently in vogue. That was very evident in climate research. There are fashions in science too, and decision-makers are certainly not immune from following them.

Speaking of fashions - as far as you know, is one discipline more popular with readers / viewers than others?

Above all, humanities, cultural or social scientists, according to the rankings that I have quoted, obviously have the authority to interpret many topics. I am currently investigating the Fukushima coverage. Here, too, it seems to be the case that the atomic physicists are used to explain the technical connections, but the question “What does this mean for society?” Is answered by humanities and cultural scientists. Opinion polls show that citizens in Europe are very interested in technical and scientific topics such as nuclear energy. But the number of those who actively deal with it is very low. On the one hand, people are curious about the technical interrelationships, on the other hand, there is no in-depth preoccupation with them. Because that is work and complicated.

Is that why the viewer loves the scientist as an expert on TV who answers all questions quickly and in a generally understandable way?

Yes. Science programs on German television such as Quarks & Co. and Adventure research live from personalities like the physicist Ranga Yogeshwar or the astrophysicist Harald Lesch. You have the gift of entertaining or of conveying things in thirty minutes that other people need at least ten minutes to do - and then nobody understood. These are natural talents. But it cannot be a requirement for all scientists to do such a job.

What influence does the trend towards medialization have retrospectively on science?

It may lead individual scientists to choose research questions based on what can be marketed well. But that's just a guess. I wouldn't see it all negatively either. If science is to be there for society, it must also deal with the issues that are discussed in society. Then accusing science of populism is schizophrenic. It must first be free of interests. But it cannot be completely indifferent to which topics are socially, politically and economically relevant.

What experiences do scientists have with journalists?

When asked how they encounter journalists, all scientists answered in unison: That it annoys them especially when they lose a lot of time to conduct an interview because the journalist is unprepared.

Dr. Beatrice Dernbach is Professor of Theory and Practice of Journalism at the University of Bremen and Head of the Institute for Science Communication. For her book “From the ivory tower into the limelight. Prominent scientists in popular mass media ”(Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2012) she conducted interviews with 14 prominent German scientists from different disciplines. In it they remember events that they brought into the media and what experiences they had there.