23 Oct 2012

Is funding a threat for critical science? Scientists spend more time applying for funding and reviewing applications while success rates decrease...

Not long ago we had a research review in which current challenges of science were also discussed. One of these was the necessity to gather funding. On the one hand, funding was seen as the only way to increase (or continue with) the number of researchers currently engaged. On the other hand, funding was also considered to be a threat for critical science. Or is the way in which the funding system is currently used the problem with its ever rising numbers of applications for decreasing budgets?

        Funding is often associated with research assignments with a narrow focus and short term perspective, paid by organizations that have related interests which may hinder critical research and not help much to build long-term expertise. Funding by EU or national academies offers more possibilities to build expertise over a number of years, investigate critically and contribute to problem solving in society. In that way funding and critical science can go together.

        However, currently almost all of the research needs competing for funding. The university budget includes less and less budget for research, so it has to be applied for. This development has been going on for some decades and resulted in a loss of academic freedom. Many researchers feel pressured by the competitive climate to get funding, all the rankings and counting publications in ranked journals. They cannot spend research time as they see fit. Society wants scientists to be accountable for how research budget is spent and this has led to a funding system that also has its problems. One problem is that there are few open calls and not all topics are ‘popular’ and gain attention this way.

        Another growing problem is that nowadays so many proposals are send in that the time invested in writing and reviewing the proposals grows out of proportion, while the chances of gaining funding have decreased, for example, to just 10 per cent. Thus, more time is invested in writing and reviewing proposals, which leaves less time available for research. Many proposals will not be implemented and just add to the bureaucracy. National academies should not give greater quota to universities that send in more proposals, and faculties could better focus on good applications, so success rate rather than high numbers of proposals.

6 Sep 2012

Interesting views at the Davos conference

End of August we had the pleasure to visit the International Disaster and Risk Conference high up in the mountains of Davos, Switzerland. There were breathtaking views after taking the cable-lift, but just as interesting views in the contents shown at the conference.

There was much attention for prepardeness for disasters in developing countries and other crises all around the globe. I heard interesting presentations on preparedness for bush fires in Australia and many speakers stressed the importance of social media in public discourse on risks and crises.

Trends were the emphasis on climate change and its consequences, but also attention given to improving resilience in big cities all around the world. Community approaches were common when talking about developing countries, and also mentioned in the USA and Australia, while it seems that in Europe rescue services by authorities are professional but less linked with citizen response. Communication can strengthen this. Furthermore, the role of information technology was stressed, and cooperation in multi-stakeholder networks.

Our workshop about the international FP7 project Public Empowerment Policies for Crisis Managament got interested listeners and the flyers referring to the project may increase traffic on the project website www.crisiscommunication.fi. We will be back in Davos to present more research results in 2014.

4 Jun 2012

Social Media & Crises (2)

Arranging environmental monitoring requires enough manpower trained for such communication tasks. In the latest e-newsletter of the Dutch National Crisis Centre a one-day national event was mentioned during which, among others, a team of 8 media analysts was active. In the case of a breaking crisis more media analysts would have been added, next to other crisis communication experts. Now two of them focused on monitoring of approximately 4000 tweets that day. Analysing social media discourse is still time consuming but tools like Seesmic are helpful and such tools are continuously further developed. At this stage the aim is to detect information, to get an early warning of possible problems or misperceptions.

When a crisis hits, people look for information on Internet. Not many people know how to find the suitable authority webpage for the current disaster. Usually they use a search engine and type the name of the crisis. Then they first get a list of links to news sites and a diversity of other mostly non-confirmed sources. In many cases the official websites of authorities involved may not even be mentioned in the top of the search results, and this is especially lacking in the later phases of a crisis. So maybe there is a good team available providing much needed information, but their website is not found by the search engines.

For this there are several solutions. First, authorities may get higher on the list of search results by using Google Adwords. Facilitating that people connect with official crisis communication sources is not new, as for example many phones have pre-arranged the crisis notification number 112, and television channels can be interrupted for crisis messages according to regulations in many countries.

Second, one can also invite traffic to the website by own interventions in the social media, using a multi-channel approach. Tweets are an efficient way to update authority information on the crisis situation, and different public organizations involved can coordinate content and use the same hashtag. Public organizations can include links to their website in their tweets and postings on social networking sites like Facebook.

Preparedness campaigns can refer to the crisis and preparedness website and thus increase familiarity with it. Some countries have a portal leading to all kinds of governmental information and may add a clearly visible link to the website that offers information on a current crisis. This website could next to instructions and background information also include a section in which own tweets and posts are brought together on the current crisis. Websites that facilitate 112 notifications sometimes also show those notifications already given or confirmed, and may visualize this using crowd mapping. Fast procedures and an integral approach with many ways to Rome are advised.

7 Feb 2012

Social media use in crises communication

Privately I’m only moderately enthusiastic about social media, but when it comes to crisis communication I must admit there are great opportunities. It is much faster and easier to update information for publics using a Twitter account than traditional media. But more importantly, there are applications people can directly contribute information to.

Most impressive are Ushadid and Crowdmap developed in Africa that facilitate reports of individual citizens and visualize them on a map. But also Google Person Finder should be mentioned, a bulletin board using open software that can be integrated in any website, and the Red Cross Family Links Webpage. These are means for crowdsourcing.

For organizations crisis communication has not become easier, as expectations are rising and they will have to use multiple channels to address a diversity of publics. Integrated communication is needed, utilizing traditional and social media, next to working with communities and intermediaries. Much preparation is needed to have hidden sites ready for various scenarios, that when they are needed can be launched fast via social media spreading the link to these websites or other open sites with information on preparedness, such as www. ready.gov.

Organizations can cooperate during an emergency, using the same hashtag or even twitter account to update information. People can be asked as eye-witnesses to upload damage pictures on Flickr, or to help clean up the neighbourhood after an incident as has happened in London after the riots. Spontaneous actions vary from linking the Facebook page on a crisis situation to one’s own, to participation in donation contests in Twitter.

Of course, there are also challenges. Monitoring what’s happening during crises in the social media is one of these challenges. Feed provided from social networks and Twitter has to be analysed, e.g. using dashboards like Seesmic and Addict-O-matic, or Europe Media monitor. There is still a lot to learn and investigate!