How does science work for the general public?

Climate change scepticism, competition within the university and different approaches that countries use to tackle COVID-19. Starting in January 2019, Hieke Huistra has been writing columns on the science page of the Dutch newspaper Trouw. Hieke is a science historian and member of the Utrecht Young Academy

Dr. Hieke Huistra (Photo: Ed van Rijswijk)

How does science work? This research question is central to Hieke's field of study and is at the heart of her columns. She answers this question from two perspectives:

"On the one hand, I write about how scientific knowledge is acquired. There is a stereotypical view of a scientific method, in which a careful step-by-step plan produces knowledge. The actual practice of science is messier, however. Science does not solely follow an objective recipe and is prone to subjective influences. These could include political preferences, cultural factors or even subtle things like having a great day or an off day. This does not imply that science is just an opinion or that opinions are on a par with science. It is very important to explain these issues to the public and paint a realistic picture of science. 

An academic career is characterised by quantitative indicators, competition within the workplace, temporary contracts and a high workload.

On the other hand, I write also about the way academia operates and its issues. An academic career is characterised by quantitative indicators, competition within the workplace, temporary contracts and a high workload. These are important themes in academia nowadays, which is why I mention them regularly. But instead of just criticizing those problems, I try to express positivity. For example, the new systems for recognition and the DORA declaration give me hope that we can change for the better."

The importance of these themes becomes evident from the responses Hieke receives. "When I read an interesting column in the newspaper myself, I may think 'great column', and continue with my day – but because of the emails I receive I know there are people out there who take the effort to look up the author’s email address and send them a friendly message. It is great to read those responses, just like the reactions I receive from fellow academics. Sometimes people will reflect on the topic and ask questions or provide suggestions; colleagues will draw my attention to another topic related to my column. 

Sometimes a column can suddenly provoke a heavy debate, for instance when I wrote about climate sceptics who deliberately cast doubt on the climate debate. They exclaim that we cannot tell what will happen to the planet with certainty, that more research is required and that we should wait before we implement regulations. This may sound like a fair point of view, but it greatly slows down the entire process. Besides, you never know anything with certainty in science. The column resulted in many responses on Twitter, especially from people whose main occupation seemed to be climate change denial. 

However, I hope to reach the swing voters. The voters who may not necessarily be active on Twitter but do read the newspaper. Hopefully, this will make a larger audience aware of the urgency of the climate crisis."

Reaching the public is an example of the differences that Hieke experiences between writing a scientific article and a column. "The process is very quick: on Thursday I send out my column and on Saturday it is printed in the newspaper. This is in stark contrast to the time scale for writing a scientific article. The peer review process can take anywhere from three to six months, after which you must rewrite the article, resubmit it and have it checked again. This easily takes one or two years and, in the end, only a handful of people will read your work. But that is also the way academia works."

Read Hieke's weekly columns here