Stories#077 Maya’s dialogue with society

#077 Maya’s dialogue with society

The story of Ivan’s open mind is a story of Maya’s dialogue with society

Sharing knowledge is very important to e-Learning Specialist Ivan Oliveira. Together with his UT colleagues, he’s started a YouTube channel to explain what they are doing. In a way, DesignLab-project manager Maya van den Berg has a similar mission: she wants to build bridges between academia and society. What has Maya learned so far? ‘When scientists are asked to become part of the public debate, there’s a risk they’re forced to choose a side.’

Click for Dutch version

Monday 17 may 2022 

Show Yourself

Ivan: ‘We’ve met before, do you remember? You were in a collaboration project with my wife Anna Grigolon – she also works at UT. You both went to Curitiba in Brazil several times. I remember bringing a notebook charger to your house…’

Maya: ‘Oh yeah, you are right! That has been a while though. I know I’m not the one asking questions today, but… How is Anna doing?’

Ivan: ‘She’s doing great – we both work at ITC now, I joined her there a few years ago. Hey, I saw you’ve worked on climate change. Yet, you’re doing something different now, don’t you?’

Maya: ‘Yes, I started off my career as a researcher – I wrote a PhD thesis about the question how and to what extent local governments prepare for climate change. But actually, that role feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been a project manager at UT since 2014. I now work at DesignLab, where I’m trying to build bridges between academia and society. We focus on citizen science now: how can we engage non-scientists in science? My colleague Renske van Wijk shared her story about that, too.’

Ivan: ‘So you’re helping us to reach out more to society. Do you think we do enough already? Or can we do more?’

Maya: ‘I think we can do more. We want to include more people from outside academia in the scientific process. We want to collaborate with non-scientists. But how do you actually do that? How do you motivate people, and make them feel welcome? I mean, among scientists, we’re talking English all the time. But as soon as you leave campus, people speak Dutch – or German, if you travel a few more miles east. My neighbour is not going to study at UT if all courses are in English. Just by using this language, we’re excluding many people from around us. But it’s not easy to find a solution. We are part of an international community, with colleagues from Brazil like you working with us!’

Ivan: ‘True, maybe by speaking English we’re getting disconnected from Dutch society. Then again: on my faculty The Netherlands is not the main focus area. To reach a worldwide audience, it is necessary to communicate in an international language.’                                                            

Maya: ‘Exactly. And this is not the only dilemma. There’s an open science movement coming up: we want to open up science, we want to share our knowledge and skills with other organizations who could join us to work on societal challenges. The Dutch Research Agenda even wants scientists to acquire research questions from the public: “What would you like to hear from us?”. That’s a complete reversal of the current situation. It brings in many challenges. How do we, for example, make sure that we stay away from political matters?

One of our biggest assets is the fact that we are neutral. That’s sort of a seal of approval: when you’ve got your research done by academics, it’s fully reliable and in line with ethical standards. When scientists are asked to become part of the public debate, there’s a risk they’re forced to choose a side.’

Ivan: ‘Many people believe the earth is flat, or they say covid is a hoax. Do you think society is ready to embrace science?’

Maya: ‘Not at all. But that’s exactly the reason why we should show ourselves more, why we should start a dialogue with society. It’s important we show people how science works and – if possible – have them stepping into science. In that way, we can change the way people look at us. That has become more challenging in a world full of fake news, but it’s also more urgent than ever before.

During the pandemic, policymakers were sometimes entirely relying on scientists. They expected us to be a 100 percent sure that our predictions would turn out right. But we will never be able to give that 100 percent guarantee. We won’t say: “Yes, solution X will definitely work”. Because we can only be sure for 95 percent.’

Ivan: ‘When I came here from Brazil seven years ago, I noticed how informal Dutch people are in their communication. I address the dean of my faculty in the same way I talk to anyone else. In Brazil, I would always refer to a professor with their title. But my feeling is that if you call somebody a ‘scientist’, or a ‘medical doctor’ for example, it puts that person at another level: they’re special, they’re not like you. So do you think this is something The Netherlands is ahead in?’

Maya: ‘That’s an interesting observation, Ivan! I don’t know if we’re more advanced than other countries. I do feel it’s our nature to consider each other as equals, but that also comes with a price. It puts us in a situation where science is ‘just’ one of the viewpoints, even if they’ve studied a certain topic for decades. People tend to value their own experiences more than somebody else’s expertise.’

Ivan: ‘Hmm, I recognize that. Earlier, you mentioned you’re trying to build bridges. How do you do that?’

Maya: ‘A vast majority of my work consists of reaching out: to municipalities and regional authorities, to research funding agencies, to European networks. I am also always curious to meet scientists like you, to get a closer understanding of their needs and how they feel they can contribute to society. I feel we need places like DesignLab, where we support researchers to ‘translate’ their scientifical knowledge to society. I think you should not put that responsibility entirely to researchers, as science communication requires a whole different set of skills.’

Ivan: ‘You’re right. I’m not going to print my articles for my neighbour to read. But he ís certainly curious about what I’m doing. Therefore, at ITC, we started the GeoHero YouTube channel to communicate about what we do. I’m interviewing staff members about their research, and we’re trying to explain concepts in a way anyone can understand them.’

Maya: ‘That’s a good idea. It’s like you say, it all starts with curiosity. You want people to become curious, so they are actually going to watch those videos. Here at UT, behind every door there’s an interesting story. We have thousands of stories to tell and some of them can lead to dialogues with society. We need to tackle this task as a university as a whole. Shaping 2030 is giving us a lot of directions there. At DesignLab, I am very happy to be preparing the Citizen Science Hub – that should allow us to build new bridges.’

Ivan: ‘So if you’re reading this and you feel your research needs a stronger societal component…’

Maya: ‘Yeah, please reach out to us at DesignLab! We can help you to make that connection. Send me a message – whether your question is general, or you have a particular project. And Ivan, let’s plan something to talk further about your YouTube channel. I am very curious!’

Ivan: ‘Yes, I will schedule something for us. Thanks, see you!’

Ivan Oliveira (1979)

was born in Brazil. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in film production at the Federal University of São Carlos and started his career producing TV commercials. Eager to explore the world, Ivan and his wife moved to the Netherlands in 2009. Here, Ivan became a freelance filmmaker. Having a passion for programming and all things technical, Ivan also started his own e-Learning company. He eventually became part of UT as e-Learning Specialist. Ivan participates in multiple international projects and helped develop a platform called The Living Textbook, among other things. He currently spends a lot of time creating videos for GeoHero, the YouTube channel for the ITC Faculty of UT.

Dr. Maya van den Berg (1981)

is a project manager at UT’s DesignLab. She studied contemporary history at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and did a PhD at the UT, where she examined how local governments are preparing climate change adaptation. Working in civil service for some years, she became a research coordinator at the IGS research institute and then moved to DesignLab where she currently is a program manager. Her main goal at DesignLab is to strengthen the ties between science and society to join forces on societal challenges.