Interview with Jason Pridmore, Vice Dean of Education at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His work focuses on practices of digital identification, mobile devices, security issues and the use of new and social media and consumer data. Jason is the project coordinator of TRESCA, an EU-funded ‘Science with and for Society’ project that focuses on social science communication. He has participated in a range of European Union Research projects and Dutch-funded projects as an advisor.
What are the main goals of the TRESCA project and how did you create the consortium? Had you previously collaborated with each other?
The TRESCA project was born out of concerns related to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and the public reaction to it. Despite significant concerns about how this social media company was using people’s personal information, it became clear that Facebook’s use and acceptance was not affected. This was particularly disturbing to Sara Degli-Esposti (Research Director of the TRESCA project and Principal Investigator (PI) of the CSIC team) and myself, so we joined up to prepare the project proposal. Though we had not worked together in the past, we have known each other for a number of years as part of the Surveillance Studies Network, an association of researchers dedicated to examining contemporary practices and implications of surveillance. As social scientists interested in issues related to data protection, misinformation, privacy, consumer surveillance and, more generally, the use of technology in everyday life, we saw the call for proposals as an opportunity to broaden the traditional scope of science communication. We felt that if we could understand how to better communicate the complexities of social science-related research, particularly those connected to increasing digitalisation, then we could also begin to strengthen science communication more generally and, in particular, on topics that should really not be up for debate, such as the climate catastrophe or vaccinations.
Sara brought to our consortium members of the Spanish National Research Centre (CSIC), including David Arroyo, the Data Security Manager, who focuses on digital misinformation tools and cybersecurity issues.
I brought Erasmus University Rotterdam with a focus on communication and media research, and with know-how and experience in research consortia.
We then built our consortium by inviting Observa, an Italian research centre focused on science communication, and ZSI, which focuses on public policy and processes. With these strong but mostly traditional research partners, we realised that key to developing our message was to involve partners representing novel but effective forms of science communication and engagement with journalists. For this, we asked the German production studio Kurzgesagt to join, given its significant number of engaging and timely science communication videos, as well its large following on social media. At the same time, we were in discussions with Science|Business, an organisation bringing together industry representatives, researchers and policy makers in Europe into a forum format. Science|Business gave the consortium a space to highlight its accomplishments to a broader audience than just researchers interested in science communication. The consortium we brought together has connected well, and we are happy that some more in-depth research and results are starting to develop.
Has the pandemic changed the strategy for organising the activities envisaged in the project? What about the contents?
TRESCA was designed around concerns raised by digitalisation in three specific areas: misinformation and digital safety, ‘enviro-mental health’ and the effects of automation on the future of skills and work. While the focus of all three of these areas remains relevant for the project, a concern about ‘enviro-mental health’, as the project has called it, became increasingly pertinent. This term was intended to signal the effects our environment has on our mental well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the confinement measures adopted to cope with it, accelerated the digitalisation of people’s everyday activities, leaving open questions on its effects on social relationships and bonding. Should we limit the use of digital devices during confinement even when they have become the only means to interact with the outside world? Can digital communication sustain real connections or does it make us lonelier? Do social bonds adapt to the means that are available? Are people who don’t have strong social networks more vulnerable to fake news? To answer these questions, we have started researching the topic of ‘resilience in times of social isolation and digitalisation’ more in depth and have made this the focus of our developing science communication video.
The project itself has been significantly affected by the pandemic, with partners in Spain and Italy affected first and significantly, followed soon after by the rest of the project partners, causing the project to shift a number of its intended processes and work timelines. Our postdoctoral researcher Marina Tulin became the Project Coordination Manager at the outset of the crisis, as I (Jason) as coordinator had to focus on other work. We have a resilient team and have worked well together in the intervening months.
You have launched a survey to learn more about the incentives or disincentives researchers experience when they engage in science communication. What measures could be taken to encourage them?
This is exactly what we are trying to determine. We believe that most researchers are driven by intrinsic motivations related to wanting to improve society and effectively bring about change through their research. The initial results of the survey show this to be true and also suggest that scientists are not as concerned about the financial rewards or those of recognition. However, as the survey is not yet complete, a fuller understanding of motivations is not yet clear. For us, the focus is on what forms of encouragement, pressures and promotion are necessary to improve and motivate effective communication and to minimise detriments to this process.
One of the outputs of the project will be an outreach video. What will its target audience be? What kind of dissemination are you planning for it?
The video that will be developed by our partner Kurzgesagt is focused on a broader public. As noted the COVID-19 crisis has shifted our focus toward considerations about how effective forms of digital communication are for maintaining social relationships. We have been forced to connect with each other – friends, family, co-workers – completely at first, and now increasingly routinely, through digital modes of communication. The focus of this video will be on what the implications of this are. We wanted something that speaks to our current situation, but then also remains relevant for several years to come. While the focus of this video will be on reaching a broader audience, we will specifically be using it and the process of development to understand effective communication processes. There will be a final video released to the public, but we will be doing a few small tests with this video to see what makes the material in it more trustworthy. For instance, does naming a researcher or research institute increase a positive response to the video by viewers? Do statistics support or overwhelm viewers in terms of scientific trustworthiness? This means that the video has a secondary purpose, i.e. to inform social scientists and journalists about what is more effective in science communication.