Cathelijne Reincke: “Effective public dialogue requires training and guidance of the experts”

For her PhD research, Cathelijne focusses on the questions: how can we educate students to become researchers who can and wish to reflect on the societal meaning of their research? Which skills do they need and how can we best teach them those skills? Recently, she published an article on dialogue based science communication.

We have known for quite some time now that dialogue works better than one-way communication to communicate science. Why don’t we do this more often?

“Researchers often are not sure which role to adopt other than an informative one. That is why we have to guide them and teach them this. For an effective dialogue about science, you also have to know: how can we best execute these roles, which skills do you need? That is part of what my research is about.”

How do you go about your research?

“We use the DNA-Dialogue as a case, where we figure out which roles the students need to learn to be able to have a fruitful dialogue and what they need to do this. We observe dialogue sessions to see how experts behave and to see what works and what doesn’t.”

What kind of knowledge do you use for this?

“The question is: which disciplines do you need to involve to gain an insight in this? In my article, I point out three responsibilities researchers have in a dialogue with a general audience: next to sharing scientific knowledge, it is important they listen to and learn from the input of their dialogue partners, and invest in the relationship. I sort out what there is to find about these aspects in academic literature. About the second aspect, specifically about listening skills there is lots of literature from communication scholars, but also for instance from governance and management scholars and from psychologists. We hand these tools to the students, teach them to use the tools and subsequently observe the effects."

I think it is important for experts to emphasize that academic knowledge is not the only source you need to arrive at an opinion, experiences and values also play a role

Can you give an example of a dialogue session in practice?

“A small setting often works the best, so not too big an audience and situating the experts among or at the same level as the audience. This way, the expert can better react to what she or he picks up from the audience, with facial expressions and body language, and also by continuing on from the questions and showing that you hear what the dialogue participants say.

So one time we were at the Huishoudbeurs (a trade fair on household goods) with the DNA-dialogue. There was a small circle of participants and experts on an equal footing, and I noticed that people were quite open about their wishes and fears. This allowed for the discussion to go much deeper and it also enabled the discussion of underlying values. It is important in such a moment that people feel free and safe and are given the space and are invited to express themselves. I think it is important for experts to emphasize that academic knowledge is not the only source you need to arrive at an opinion, experiences and values also play a role.”

Are these skills we can expect from every researcher?

“The DNA-dialogue works with a moderator and I think that is a good choice, because to act as moderator calls for specific skills which we cannot expect every researcher to have or learn. So in this case, we look at the skill researchers need next to the moderator. In the DNA-lab we work without a moderator. Apart from their role as experts, students are responsible for guiding the group process.This allows for more direct interaction and less felt distance between expert and pupils.

However you do it, effective public dialogue requires training and guidance of the experts. These dialogues have an effect on multiple levels. For an individual project or subject, it is an effective way of determining what public opinion is on a given subject. But on a higher level, these dialogues contribute to trust between parties. People learn they can exert influence on research and it allows us to calibrate our research to what society needs.