Interview with Cissi Askwall, Secretary General, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, VA (Public & Science)

Attitudinal surveys, public engagement activities and media workshops are just some of the work carried out by VA (Public & Science). Read more about VA and science communication in Sweden in an interview with VA’s Secretary General, Cissi Askwall.

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WHAT IS VETENSKAP & ALLMÄNHET?
Vetenskap & Allmänhet stands for Public & Science, although we are often known as just ‘VA’. We are a Swedish non-profit membership organisation that works to promote dialogue and openness between researchers and the public. Our office is in Stockholm but our work covers the whole of Sweden.

IS THIS TYPE OF ORGANISATION UNIQUE TO SWEDEN?
Many countries have organisations working with science and society issues, for example the British Science Association, Wissenschaft im Dialog in Germany, Ciência Viva in Portugal and Observa in Italy. The Swedish concept ‘vetenskap’, like ‘wissenschaft’ in Germany, is actually much broader than the English notion of ‘science’ and our remit includes the humanities, social sciences and theology too.

VA is an independent organisation so we work with lots of different stakeholders involved in science communication, creating a forum for discussion and collaboration. Part of our role is to be a knowledge hub, generating, gathering and sharing best practice and experiences. We also arrange many events and activities aimed at stimulating dialogue between researchers and the public in novel ways and in new arenas.

HOW IS VA FUNDED?
Partly through membership fees – VA has some 80 members, such as research organisations, universities, public authorities, companies and private associations as well as a number of individual members. We also receive an annual grant from the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research and a lot of our activities are financed through project grants that we apply for.

HOW DOES THE PUBLIC VIEW RESEARCHERS IN SWEDEN?
Each year VA conducts attitude surveys to learn how the Swedish public views science, research and researchers. This include our annual barometer, based on telephone interviews with a sample of the Swedish population as well as questions in an annual postal survey, conducted by the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg. We have been running these surveys since VA was founded in 2002, so have a lot of comparable data to be able to track changes over time.

Results from our 2013 barometer show that public confidence in researchers at universities is at a record high (89%) and the majority of Swedes (70%) support investment in research, which is obviously very positive. However, two-thirds of respondents believe that researchers have different opinions on important issues, such as health and the environment, and should wait for findings to be corroborated before they are published.

DOES THE MEDIA INFLUENCE PUBLIC TRUST IN RESEARCH IN SWEDEN?
Our research shows that public opinion in Sweden is easily influenced by media. Over half of the respondents in the 2013 barometer said that their attitude towards research and researchers had changed as a result of something that they had heard or read in the media in the preceding month, mainly in a more positive way. According to the latest Eurobarometer, Swedes are the Europeans who read the most news about research. However, they are also quite skeptic about media reports. Less than one in five Swedes completely agrees that news about research is usually presented in a reliable way by the media.

We intend to investigate these findings in more detail this year in another study that will look specifically at how the Swedish media reports science. The media is a key target audience for VA and we also run workshops aimed at improving understanding between journalists and researchers.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN SWEDEN WITH REGARDS TO THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE AND SOCIETY?
In Sweden, universities have three official mandates – teaching, research and ’interaction with society’, stipulated by law in the University Act. However, in reality this ‘third assignment’, as it is known, is often seen as voluntary and a big challenge is to get more researchers actively involved in communicating their science to the public. Ways to achieve this are to make it more rewarding for researchers to engage with society and to equip researchers with the skills and confidence to undertake public engagement activities.

It is one of the reasons that VA and the four research councils in Sweden together started the Researchers’ Grand Prix two years ago. This is a science communication competition for researchers in which they must present their science to a public audience in an engaging and educational way – in just three minutes. It is a fun, entertaining and interactive concept that involves audience voting. It is also broadcast on Swedish television so reaches a wide public audience. A bit like Pop Idol – but for science!

HOW DOES VA WORK WITH YOUNG PEOPLE?
Young people are one of our key target audiences. To tackle all the challenges facing society, it is vital that we stimulate young people’s interest in careers in science and technology. This is a particular current concern in Sweden. Results from the latest PISA survey show a decreasing proficiency in reading comprehension, maths and science among Swedish 15-year-olds. In all three subjects, Swedish average results have dropped considerably since 2009 and are well below the OECD average. Meanwhile, the number of applications to secondary school teacher education programmes in maths, science and technology at Swedish universities also continues to decline.

A number of VA’s projects are aimed specifically at getting young people interested in science. VA is the national coordinator of the annual European Researchers’ Night. Events are now run in some 30 Swedish cities and attract large numbers of young people. We also work directly with schools on mass experiments that engage pupils in real research. For example, last year’s experiment involved pupils documenting changes to autumn leaves to help researchers. We are also partners in a three-year project School meets science that is looking at ways to help teachers bring more science and research into the classroom.

DOES VA WORK INTERNATIONALLY?
VA is an outward looking organisation that is involved in a number of EU projects, such as Researchers’ Night, and are the Swedish partners in a new flagship project named RRI Tools. We also regularly participate in international conferences, from which we gain inspiration and share best practice and experiences with other countries. For example, in 2014 we are running sessions at ESOF in Denmark and PCST in Brazil.

WHAT IS RRI TOOLS AND VA’S ROLE IN IT?
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a key concept in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. The RRI Tools project involves 30 European countries and will develop tools and methods aimed at raising awareness, training, disseminating and implementing RRI. As the national partner for Sweden, we will be responsible for consulting with many stakeholders, managing the Swedish hub and promoting the use of the tools within Sweden. This exciting three-year project started in January 2014.

SINCE VA WAS SET UP IN 2002, IN WHICH AREA HAS VA MADE THE GREATEST IMPACT?
I believe that we have been pretty successful at making various stakeholders more aware of the importance of public engagement and the University Act’s mandate for universities and researchers to engage with society. There is a now a lot more public engagement activity that takes place and many Swedish universities have integrated public engagement into their strategies. In addition, at the request of the Swedish government, work is now underway to develop methods to evaluate a university’s interaction with society with the ultimate aim of using these measurements for resource allocation. These are all positive steps in creating a new culture in the scientific community in which public engagement activity is an integral part.


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