Go back

Research managers urged to ‘build public trust in science’

Image: Craig Nicholson for Research Professional News

SRAI 2022: Administrators can play “important roles” in facilitating effective public engagement, conference hears

Research managers can help build public trust in science by supporting citizen science efforts in their institutions, an international conference has heard.

Speaking at the opening session of the 2022 Society of Research Administrators International annual meeting in Las Vegas, United States, on 2 November, Johanna Varner, an associate professor of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University, said research administrators have “important roles” to play in facilitating effective public engagement in science. She emphasised that this has “implications for broader trust and confidence in research”.

Drawing on her own experience leading a citizen science programme to track the American pika—a small rodent-like mammal found in the mountains of western North America—Varner (pictured) said the past few years had demonstrated how quickly projects could come to a “screeching halt” without adequate funding and administrative expertise.

Post-grant activity

“You can see how quickly research can fall apart without funding,” she said, “and this is where we really need your [research managers’] help—especially with finance for a project to continue after the life of a grant ends.”

Research managers, she added, are in a “position to help us think about how engagement activities will continue after a grant ends, which helps both to make grant proposals more competitive but also increases the likelihood of it having meaningful impact on a community for a long time”.

Varner suggested that research administrators could help scientists to identify funding opportunities as well as to think about how public participation might enhance existing research projects and “whether or not these kinds of grants might be a good fit”.

She urged research managers to encourage scientists to write public engagement activities into their budgets, adding that this “also makes proposals more competitive by showing that these activities are not simply an afterthought or lip service”.

Data sharing

Another way to boost public trust in science is by helping researchers to make their data freely available, she suggested.

“This is where I think you [research managers] can make a really big difference in developing data-sharing strategies that enhance trust,” Varner said. “You can also help us come up with ways to structure these plans to reduce the burden of compliance—particularly for trainees who are early career researchers.”

Meanwhile, research administrators help researchers to “ensure that our data-sharing plans comply with the relevant policies but also protect that hard-earned trust in science, particularly for human subjects”.

Another approach that she said consistently increases trust is sharing studies with community participants “as soon as possible”.

In the case of her Pika Watch project, which engages citizen scientists to locate and map pika populations, she said volunteers “really love seeing end summaries that show how their data contributes to the bigger question”.

Misconceptions about citizen science

Currently, she said many scientists share a misconception that citizen science is “basically free work or requires very little input or funding on their end”, whereas volunteer management is “actually surprisingly costly”.

For instance, she added, citizen science almost always requires seasonal volunteer coordinators to administer projects during the field season, with costs typically ranging from about $5,000 to $15,000 depending on volunteer numbers and recruitment efforts.
Addressing research managers at the conference, Varner said it was “very easy to lose sight of the impacts you are having out there in the world”.

However, she said that research administrators were the people who “make the research magic happen”.

“You support scientists like me to engage a variety of public audiences. That support ripples through and strengthens our communities.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe