In practice: keeping quiet is not an option

Marc Bonten enjoys discussing science. During the pandemic, he dealt selectively with the many media requests he received. He takes his academic responsibility to provide guidance seriously: “If I don’t do it, there will soon be someone else and I’m not so sure they’re doing a great job."

Marc Bonten
Photo: Seth Carnill, Utrecht Science Week

Two speeds

Already before the pandemic, he was actively communicating off the beaten track of science. Bonten: “I wrote blogs about scientific articles, and in 2016 I started using Twitter to increase their exposure.” As a scientist who is keen to engage in dialogue, he identifies a chasm between the speeds at which two worlds move. “There is hardly any discussion along the beaten tracks of science. You submit a piece, it’s reviewed over the course of months, and in many cases a year will have passed before it’s published.

To respond, you’ll need to send in a letter and wait three to four weeks before you hear anything back. That’s really not much of a discussion, so this – blogging, Twitter – is much more fun.”

Stick to your trade

The pandemic has opened a middle course between fast, ungoverned social media and the slow, tightly governed scientific forum. “A world of preprints, webinars, forums and so on has opened up.” Bonten felt at home in this world. As a researcher he sticks to his trade [infection prevention and antibiotic resistance, ed.], but the online discussions are about anything and everything. “When patients reach out to me personally, I tell them I’m no longer a practicing physician and I’m not likely to blurt out something on a subject I don’t know enough about.” In Bonten’s opinion, public engagement is a responsibility researchers should assume in more cases: “It’s often enjoyable, it keeps you on your toes and you meet people who know more about a specific subject. This helps you ahead in your own research.”

It’s often enjoyable, it keeps you on your toes and you meet people who know more about a specific subject. This helps you ahead in your own research.

Young researchers

As a member of the Outbreak Management Team, Bonten was thrust into the limelight during the COVID pandemic. “From one moment to the next you’re under intense scrutiny.” As a public figure, Bonten pays even closer attention to his communication. He has this advice for young researchers: “Never speak out about things you don’t know about, and keep your gut feeling out of the discussion. The responsibility of science to provide guidance has only increased, especially in a time when everybody speaks their mind. If a scientific conclusion points in a different direction, you have to be able to explain this. As a scientist, you must always be free to say: last week I was saying turn left, but now I have a responsibility to turn right."

Text by Erik van Zwol

Prof. dr. Marc Bonten holds the chair in Molecular Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the Julius Centre, part of University Medical Centre Utrecht.



This article also appears in the second edition of the magazine Close-up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

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