Interview: science with and for society

Being appointed Professor of Oceanography and Public Engagement at the end of 2021 was a dream come true for Erik van Sebille. Not only can he now study the workings of science communication, he was finally able to participate in Meet the Professor. How important is it to have a Professor of Public Engagement, and what will he be working on this year? We picked Erik’s academic brain. 

First: Meet the Professor. How was it for you?

“I was delighted to take the stage literally and figuratively during the opening. It was really a short inaugural lecture on public engagement. Colleagues who didn’t know it yet learned that there is a Professor of Public Engagement. I took plastic that had floated in the ocean for years along to a primary school in Kanaleneiland, to show to the children of group 6. They were really interested and even smelled the plastic. So they spontaneously did some enquiry-based learning!”  

During Meet the Professor, Utrecht University professors cycle to primary schools to meet pupils and answer all of their questions. The classes receive hints and teaching material in advance in order to prepare thoroughly for the visits.

How do you combine the two roles: Professor of Oceanography and Professor of Public Engagement?

“I work in oceanography four days a week, and one day a week I’m the new group leader of Public Engagement and Science Education. The trick is to achieve a balance to make sure that what I do in the Physics department also works for public engagement and the other way around. My remit is to map the research around public engagement.”  

As Professor of Public Engagement, are there things you are able to do that were not possible before?

“I’ve now had this appointment for five months, and I’ve allowed myself the period up to my inaugural lecture, on 16 May 2023, to achieve clarity around the research assignment. I want to look at the role of researchers s in the public debate on climate. What mantle should they take on? What is the added value of researchers? How do we retain the confidence of society? I also very much enjoy setting up a new group. A PhD candidate, Aike Vonk, and a post-doctoral researcher, Frances Wijnen, are studying the measurement of the impact and the efficacy of public engagement, among other ways by analysing press releases. They examine narratives: how do researchers frame their press releases about oceanic climate change versus the plastic soup? Do they learn from each other? My appointment lets me ask the question of how science works.”  

You also involved an employee of the faculty section of Communications in your research centre. What is the added value of this?  

“Nieske Vergunst has experience. She switches quickly between tasks and has a huge network. We want to experiment: how much effort is it to let a specific message sink in with a specific target group? I mostly try to discover what makes things effective. How do you achieve maximum impact? Some people believe that public engagement with sustainability should aim for behavioural change. I for one am happy just to foster scientific literacy. As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, science communication is not about conveying the facts but about an understanding of how science works. How do you ensure that scientific literacy ends up having an effect? This is what Nieske will be working on. I’m a firm believer in a less absolute separation between support staff and academic staff. We can, in fact, learn from each other. A year from now, we’ll be going around to demonstrate this collaborative model. We hope that a good example will inspire the other faculties.” 

Science communication is not about conveying the facts, but about an understanding of how science works.

You’ve written a paper together with a group of fellows; colleagues who are working on public engagement as an aspect of open science. What is your message?  

“One important message is that we can’t work on behalf of public engagement if these tasks are not recognised and rewarded as part of our academic work. As long as it’s an unpaid activity you do out of private conviction, it can’t be professionalised and its effectiveness can’t be determined. Science is done together with society and for the benefit of society. This means we have to do it as effectively as possible. I believe the graduate schools also have a role to play here. All PhD candidates have an educational remit; why wouldn’t public engagement be a part of that? We try, for example, to show as much appreciation for the public engagement activities of Climate Helpdesk volunteers, many of whom are PhD candidates, as for their teaching tasks.”  

You strongly advocate training young researchers in how to present what they do to the public. What led you to advocate this?  

“I received my own very first media training while working as a climate researcher in Australia. A concerted effort was made at the time to give twenty young researchers intensive media training to get a diverse group of people to convey the same message in the same way and using the same terminology. This makes the message much stronger and, as a result, more effective. We do this in Utrecht as well, for example with the programme Breaking Science. I’m often on the jury during qualifying rounds, which in fact are even more fun than the finals: you can cheer them on and watch them grow. This summer we’ll have a similar programme in the Botanic Gardens, which involves literally putting young researchers onto a soapbox. 

At Breaking Science the qualifying rounds are even more fun than the finals: you can watch the participants grow.

''I think it’s right to say that in the Netherlands we really are pioneers. Not just in Utrecht, but at other universities, too, people reflect at an academic level on just what role science has in society. How can it be made efficient, effective and fair? In Open Science and Recognition & Rewards we also lead the way. It’s something we should take pride in.” 


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.

View magazine

Tips from Erik

Reading tip:

Preprint Public Engagement paper by the Public Engagement fellows  

Viewing tip:

PCNI inspiration session on YouTube, from 8:08 to 13:15.