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ESConet Trainers

Final Report Summary - ESCONET (ESCONET trainers)

Executive summary:

A decade ago, the European Commission (EC) warned: 'Our society is faced with challenge of finding its proper place in a world shaken by economic and political turbulence ... science, technology and innovation are indispensable to meet this challenge. However, there are indications that (their) immense potential is out of step with ordinary citizens'. (Science and society action plan, 2001).

In response, the Commission proposed 38 actions, involving researchers, media professionals and the Commission itself that were vital if the public had confidence and supported their scientists in providing solutions to the problems facing the European Union (EU). Many of these actions centred on better, more honest and more engaging communication amongst researchers, journalists, broadcasters, policy makers and European citizens.

But a key question was how to empower Europe's researchers to communicate better with the audiences identified by the Commission as crucial to ensuring science-in-society relations fit for the new millennium. After all, whilst researchers are well educated in their scientific disciplines, there is little in their training that prepares them to be involved in dialogue around the more controversial aspects of their work and its consequences, or even to talk to busy media professionals and policy makers with deadlines to meet and decisions to be reached.

ESCONET, the European network of science communication trainers, set out to address this problem. ESCONET has a team of 24 trainers from 12 countries across Europe, including many media professionals and leading science communication academics. ESCONET was and is ideally set up to deal with the complex needs of researchers across a wide variety of natural, applied and social science disciplines from countries covering the entire EU.

Under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), we developed a set of modules that could be put together flexibly to create science communication training workshops to fit the time available and the particular needs of the researchers to be trained. Under FP7, we have delivered two series of three-day workshops in both 'basic' science communication practices and advanced, deliberative communication and engagement around key and controversial issues.

The results of the FP7 have been 'mass' science communication training on a scale never achieved before:

- a total of 20 workshops delivered under contract to the EC - 10 in 2009 and 10 in 2010;
- a total of 367 training places delivered - 168 in 2009, 199 in 2010;
- 231 researchers from 34 countries, trained, including 25 EU countries, 2 candidate countries, 5 other European countries and 2 non-European countries.

The immediate feedback from these workshops has been overwhelmingly positive. More in depth evaluation shows that training on the workshops results in increased confidence and science communication activity levels.

Project context and objectives:

ESCONET trainers are part of enabling the vision of the EC's science and society action plan (2001) to become reality. ESCONET provides busy researchers with the key skills they need to communicate with the media and their fellow Europeans. Our team combines the talents of media and policy professionals with a solid basis in science communication training.

Background to ESCONET trainers

In 1999, the EC decided that issues concerning science communication and the relationships between the research community and European citizens should be eligible for funding under FP5. The result was the Raising public awareness of science and technology (RPAST) programme. Under this programme, seven institutions from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain came together to form the European network of science communication teachers (ENSCoT) (see online).

ENSCoT, whose project lasted from 2000 to 2003, concentrated on producing a series of modules that could be used in full graduate and undergraduate courses and programmes on science communication and the public understanding of science. As part of its work, however, it carried out some trial workshops in science communication training, and made some initial developments in curriculum design and materials.

In FP6, the ENSCoT core was widened to include 17 institutions from 11 EU countries to form ESCONET (see for a review). The resulting ESCONET workshops project (see for details) produced a set of science communication workshop training modules (available from on request).

As well as basic skills in writing, being interviewed by the media, and communicating on the web, the modules developed by ESCONET gave trainees insights into the aims and characteristics of their audiences, the functioning of the mass media, the place of Science in society (SIS), and techniques from social science that could be useful in preparing and evaluating science communication activities. More advanced modules taught researchers to communicate to policy makers, talk about risk, deal with scientific controversy, and engage in dialogue with interest groups and ordinary citizens.

These modules were successfully tested in a series of workshops, training other FP6-funded networks in science communication, such as the spectroscopy network QUASAAR (see for details), the Care-Man healthcare network (see for details) and the European planetary science network, Europlanet (see for details). Additional workshops were held for members of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Belgian space science academics and industrialists (including one senior official from the EC DG12). The modules were also used by ESCONET members on countless occasions to deliver training at their own institutions. And, even more importantly, they were used to train a new generation of science communication trainers so that new forces could help in the potentially limitless task of training Europe's researchers to communicate clearly and effectively to the European public at large and to the mass media.

ESCONET trainers

During its lifetime under FP6, ESCONET built up an international network of experienced and highly effective trainers, who work well as a team in whatever combination may be required for the particular science group or groups being trained. Many of the group of experienced trainers have also been, or still are, working journalists and broadcasters.

Our 'second tier' of younger trainers are now extremely proficient and regularly undertake training workshops of their own. In order to increase the overall media experience of the network, ESCONET trainers then recruited additional working broadcasters, particularly in the area of radio and television (TV) journalism, as well trainers with experience in running press offices and briefing politicians at ministerial level.

The 2009-2011 project was carried out in response to a very specific call, SIS-2008- which calls for training activities for high-level EC-funded scientists, chosen by the Commission: 'the training should improve their abilities to interact with national and international media, especially the audiovisual ones ... It should also include training to use new media with the objective to establish better dialogue with society ... '. ESCONET trainers set out to do this with a series of residential workshops that enabled the trainees to interact intensively with both the trainers and their peers, maximising the lessons learned and the new skills acquired.

ESCONET draws its trainers from 12 member states from the north-west to the south-east of the EU. It is therefore well suited to training scientists on EC-funded networks. ESCONET trainers is a reliable, tested and well-founded network, experienced in the worlds of the mass media and politics, with a lively and engaging set of resources for carrying out the training of high-level EC-funded scientists as required. During its two years of delivering workshops, ESCONET trainers ensured that participants were recruited from the newer EU Member States, where science communication training is often less readily availability.

Unfortunately, many current training programmes in science communication tend to be generic, unreflexive and of the 'bag of tricks variety'. One of the key aspects of the modules is that they address the issue of genuine dialogue and debate, essential for relationship between the European research community and their fellow citizens. ESCONET's modules emphasise the importance of listening, rather than the one-way, top-down communication favoured by the scientific community prior to 2000.

The 2009-2011 project

During 2009-2010, ESCONET trainers organised a series of three-day residential workshops. Over a period of two years, 11 'basic' workshops and 9 'advanced' workshops (10 workshops per year) were delivered. Each workshop was able to train approximately 20 researchers. The ESCONET modules were used to simulate quite probable, real-life experiences that researchers face in the course of their careers.

ESCONET trainers make use of the modular approach developed under FP6 to deliver workshops to high-level European scientists. Our workshops were able to offer multilingual training - English, French, Spanish and Croatian as a matter of course, with Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian depending individual trainers' availability. Two levels of workshop were delivered:

1. Basic workshops for those who had very little experience of communicating with lay audiences or the media. These trained participants in:

- media writing, with practical exercises based around writing a press release;
- being interviewed by television or radio journalists;
- web writing and design, making use of good examples from around the world.

2. Advanced level workshops for those who already had the communication skills and experience that would be acquired in the basic workshops. These trained participants to:

- present to policy makers and potential funders;
- communicate risk to non-scientifically trained interest groups;
- engage in dialogue to use science to solve problems whilst taking account of the interests and expertise of lay citizens and interest groups.

The way in which ESCONET's individual modules are designed and delivered enables the trainer to use materials that are particularly relevant to the (mix of) scientists participating in the workshop. So, for example, scientists from Europlanet were given a press release about water on extrasolar planets to discuss as part of their basic training. And members of the Care-Man network were asked to devise a strategy for communicating the risks posed by avian flu to airport and hospital workers as an advanced, optional module. For this proposed series of workshops, ESCONET trainers will ensure that materials are well suited to the scientists to be trained at any particular workshop. Moreover we developed a number of scenarios for the advanced workshops based on subject, such as Genetically modified (GM) farming, and the treatment and prevention of Leishmaniasis on the Indian sub-continent.

High-level scientists have very cluttered diaries. But ESCONET showed that they were able to get away for these workshops and felt them to be important to their life as a researcher. Our strategy of having residential workshops dedicated to science communication activities is that the required skills cannot be acquired unless participants are able to focus for a reasonable period of time. Residential workshops encourage informal learning and peer learning. One lesson from ESCONET has been that many of the participants at our workshops then keep in touch with one another, exchanging experiences so as to reinforce what they have learned together.

The results of the FP7 have been 'mass' science communication training on a scale never achieved before:

- a total of 20 workshops delivered under contract to the EC - 10 in 2009 and 10 in 2010;
- a total of 367 training places delivered - 168 in 2009, 199 in 2010;
- 230 researchers from 34 countries, trained, including 25 EU countries, 2 candidate countries, 5 other European countries and 2 non-European countries.

The immediate feedback from these workshops has been overwhelmingly positive. More in depth evaluation shows that training on the workshops results in increased confidence and science communication activity levels.

Project results:

Workshops in 2009

During the course of December 2008, prior to the official start of our project, we worked with staff at directorate-general (DG) 'Research' to get full contact details for the list that had been put together as part of the Commission's preparation for this call. All of the individuals and networks for which current contact details were provided were sent the 2009 brochure, and invited to participate in the planned workshops. Additionally, working with the Commission, the provisional list was expanded, with a particular view to recruiting trainees from the newer EU countries, such as Poland.

During the course of March / April 2009, five workshops - three 'basic' and two advanced - were delivered at the Centre for advanced academic studies (CAAS) in Dubrovnik, Croatia. One of these was devoted to national outreach contacts for the international year of astronomy, then in its early stages. Another series of five workshops were delivered at CAAS during July, 2009. The overall attendance at these workshops was 73 trainees in March / April and 90 in July. These split into 103 on the basic courses and 60 on the advanced courses. Additionally, ESCONET members organised a non-EC funded workshop for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Velingrad, Bulgaria, during September. There were 13 attendees for the basic course, of which six stayed on do take the advanced course.

During the course of the year, we developed a number of new scenarios to augment those already in the ESCONET modules. These were used particularly for the advanced modules on communicating risk and talking science and listening. For the former, it was decided to use a hypothetical outbreak of swine flu in Dubrovnik as a timely and local scenario, as well as a more general scenario of communicating the risk of GM crops to a series of audiences.

We also used the existing ESCONET dialogue scenario of the sinking of the prestige oil tanker off the coast of Galicia (Spain) for communicating risk. For the 'Talking Science and Listening' advanced module, the new GM crop scenario was also used, with trainees being put in the role of GM scientists, farmers, food industry managers and green activists. In response to one particular trainee group, a new scenario on combating the deadly disease Leishmaniasis in the Indian state of Bihar was developed, with trainees taking on the roles of European health scientists, local councillors, villagers, and pesticide manufacturers. A 'playing card' voting system was introduced as a way of indicating how successful participants had been in engaging with the concerns of other groups.

One key lesson learned during the course of the 2009 workshops was that a minority of senior researchers felt that being senior researchers meant that they were also senior science communicators. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case. Having trainees at the advanced workshops who did not have some basic science communication training proved to be disruptive for the majority of participants and frustrating for them.

Workshops in 2010

At the end of the workshops in 2009, we discussed with the management of the CAAS our booking for 2010. It transpired that the Centre was booked in such a way as to make it impossible to deliver workshops efficiently in the March / April period. So bookings for all workshops were made during July and August.

As a result of experience in 2009, the network decided that any researcher asking to participate in our SCII workshops either had to participate in our SCI workshop, or demonstrate that they had participated in an equivalent workshop. This stipulation was approved by ESCONET's former EC project manager, Sofia Caira.

All of the individuals and networks for which current contact details were provided by the Commission were, once more, sent the 2010 brochure, and invited to participate in the planned workshops. Additionally, ESCONET sent brochures to the national contact points, and various academies of science, particularly in Poland and Bulgaria, where the network had developed good contacts. We also sent brochures to FP7 researchers, whose contact details gathered through the Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) website, internet searches, personal contacts and through the recommendations of past participants, brochures for 2010 year's courses were disseminated widely.

During the period of July 12-15 August 2010, five 'basic' and five advanced three-day workshops were delivered at the CAAS in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The workshops were presented by a total of 24 individual trainers, working in pairs.

This represents the most intense science communication training process ever delivered, and indicates the flexibility of the ESCONET modular approach, and the suitability of its modules to being delivered by several trainers. Whilst each trainer brings with them their own particular approach to the modules, the design and delivery notes mean that the main topics and materials are covered consistently.

The 2010 series of 10 workshops had a total of 200 training places available; 199 out of these were filled, and the one unfilled place resulted from a very late cancellation that occurred too late for us to fill the place. 124 individuals were trained, with most doing both workshops. Additionally, some of the 2009 SCI trainees returned to do the SCII workshop. Thus we delivered 99 SCI trainings and 100 SCII trainings.

During the course of the Dubrovnik workshops, it was felt necessary to develop a new scenario to augment those already in the ESCONET modules. The scenario was intended for the module on Communicating Risk and it was decided that to use a hypothetical outbreak of cholera in Dubrovnik as a timely local scenario. Three of the original ESCONET modules were developed further following the courses in Dubrovnik. These are social science for science communication, (see appendix 3) science in dialogue (i.e. 'Talking Science and Listening'), and public science on the web.

The changed social science module focuses more narrowly on the evaluation of science communication than it previously did, please find the new module attached. As for 'Science in Dialogue', it was felt that a slight adjustment to the module was needed and that new scenarios should be developed to complement those already used. The change lies in that less focus should be put on interpersonal communication than what has previously been the case. So far, one new scenario has been developed. The scenario is on the use of deep brain stimulation as a possible treatment of Major Depression (please find it attached as an appendix). The changes made to public science on the web, a first draft has been submitted.

ESCONET members organised a non-EC funded one-day workshop in collaboration with Think-Lab Ltd. for European fusion development agreement (EFDA) at Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, Technical University of Denmark, on the 5 May. ESConet members also organised a non-EC funded workshop for a group of neuroscientists in Trieste, Italy, in collaboration with SISSA (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati), held 20-22 June 2011.

Potential impact:

Impact and societal application

In order to evaluate the ESCONET project, all trainees were asked for feedback following the workshops. In addition, all trainees were sent Post-training questionnaires to be filled in 6-12 months after training, and the trainees of 2010 were asked to fill in pre-training questionnaires, which would allow ESCONET to compare their attitudes and opinions of the workshop(s) and science communication generally. The questionnaires did not seek answers to exactly the same questions, but they largely aimed to measure the same things, such as the confidence the trainees felt when facing various science communication activities, for instance.

All questionnaires, which were anonymous, were fed into SPSS, as were the details of the trainees that did not respond to the questionnaires. The reason for the latter was to produce descriptive statistics for all of the trainees, which has been presented elsewhere. The data, totalling 129 cases out of 231, whereof the pre-training respondents amount to 92 and post-training questionnaires were handed in by 87 respondents. 50 trainees submitted both pre and post-training questionnaires (all in 2010), and 43 only handed in pre-training but no post-training questionnaires, while 36 trainees chose to fill in the post-training questionnaires but not the pre-training questionnaire. A majority of the latter group were trainees in 2009, to whom no pre-training questionnaires were sent. Three of the trainees that attended workshops in both 2009 and 2010 submitted post-training questionnaires for 2009 and pre-training questionnaires in 2010, but not post-training questionnaires for 2010. 102 trainees submitted neither pre nor post-training questionnaires.

The 120 variables provide answers to a large number of questions, a number of which are beyond the scope of this report. What is interesting here are questions related to the impact which the training may have had on the confidence levels experienced among the trainees, their overall opinions about the workshops, and their attitudes towards science communication.


Respondents of both the pre and post-training questionnaires were asked to rate, firstly, how easy they would find it to perform a number of public communication activities. As mentioned above, the activities listed differed between the two questionnaires, yet, each have produced a mean that facilitates a comparison between the level of confidence felt pre and post-training when communicating publicly. This question was followed by a number of questions related specifically to the confidence felt by the respondents when taking part of science communication activities related to the modules included in the ESCONET workshop(s). In this instance, both questionnaires asked exactly the same questions.

Comparing the means for the ease by which trainees claimed to communicate publicly, it seems trainees found communication easier prior to the workshop(s) - 3.06 of 5, where 1 was very difficult and 5 very easy, than after the workshops where the mean was 2.71 all cases considered. Comparing the replies submitted only by the respondents who chose to hand in both questionnaires, the figures did not change much as the mean for pre-training was 2.99 while the post-training equivalent was 2.69.

As for the second question, dealing specifically with the confidence felt in relation to a number of science communication activities, the mean rose following the workshops to 3.20 from 3.03 when all cases were included. A similar curve was noticed when the 50 cases encompassing both the pre and post-training questionnaires were selected, with the mean rising to 3.27 from 2.96 following the workshop(s).

The numbers suggest that trainees may have assumed public communication to be slightly easier before training than after training. While the suggestion, by itself, could mean that the workshops did little to encourage trainees to communicate, the measured confidence levels imply that the workshop(s) have in fact increased their confidence when engaging in science communication activities.

When put to a T-test, comparing the confidence measured before and after the workshops, the correlation between the two sets of scores is statistically significant (p equals 0.004) and the difference between their means is also significant (p equals 0.003). That is to say that the mean confidence that participants felt in terms of communicating science increased following the workshop(s).


One of the questions on the post-training questionnaire related to how helpful the trainees found the workshops in relation to communicating their research to non-experts, raising the visibility profile of their institutions, better understanding of SIS issues and getting in touch with colleagues who share similar interest in communicating with the public . With the scale ranging between 1 - not at all and 5 - very much, the mean for all four was 3.60 while the mean for communicating research to non-experts achieved 4.01 raising the visibility of their institution got 3.07 increasing the understanding of SIS issues got to 3.85 and getting in touch with colleagues who share a similar interest in communicating with the public achieved 3.41. Overall, the figures show that the ESCONET were considered helpful to the trainees.

Finally, when choosing between seven areas in which ESCONET had an impact, the three options most often singled out by respondents were 'writing up a press release' (53), 'understanding the key elements for a successful interview with journalists' (47), and 'understanding the critical features of your audience and adjust your presentation accordingly'.

Attitudes toward science communication and the public understanding of science

As the move from the public understanding of science towards the 'new mood for dialogue' was stressed during the workshops, and most modules touched on the topic, the trainees were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a set of statements. The mean value was 3.42 (5 being the ideal), which points towards an increasing understanding for the 'new mood for dialogue' as opposed to the more paternalistic and one-directional PUS mentality. Comparing the means for the various statements, however, it becomes apparent that the trend is not necessarily consistent across the board. More of the trainees did, for instance, disagree with keeping discussions of uncertainties about facts and models within the scientific community, while more than half of the respondents agreed with the PUS notion by which the public will be more positive about science if they only know more about research. The individual means were as follows:

- 'If the public only knew more about research, it would be more positive about science'.
- 'Discussions of uncertainties about facts and models should be kept within the scientific community'.
- 'The main task of scientists in public communication is to educate the public.'
- 'The public should be informed when scientists disagree about relevant issues'.
- 'Scientists should do more efforts to make their research known to the general public'.
- 'Scientists should do more efforts to understand public concerns with regard to science and technology issues'.
- 'Journalists are not competent enough to cover science issues'.

The mean values did not change by much when checked against whether or not respondents attended a science communication I or a science communication II workshop, or both .

Societal application

This project has an immense societal application in that it brings the scientific community closer to the public, who often pay for research and make up the society in which science is being interpreted and implemented. Though the long-term societal implications of the project are impossible to evaluate at present time, it is fair to assume that most trainees are and will communicate science to the public. One of the questions in the post-training questionnaire dealt with the communication activities that trainees undertook following the workshops. A similar question was asked on the pre-training questionnaires, showing that all trainees had some form of public communication experience, yet, the numbers cannot be compared as the latter questionnaire did not ask respondents to clarify the number of years during which the activities had taken place. With regards to the post-training questionnaires then, only one of the trainees claimed not to have engaged with the public or media in any way, whereas the average number of different public communication activities was 5.74 out of 11. The three most common activities are 'Helping to prepare a brochure or any other communication material for the public' (66.7 %), 'Giving information to the public relations department of your institution' (56.3 %), and 'Helping to organise or conduct a public event (e.g. open-house day, science fair, exhibition)' (55.2 %). This while only 16.1 % of respondents claimed to have been 'Helping to plan or conduct a public information campaign (e.g. health care)'.

It is fair to assume that all trainees who attended the workshop(s) did so as they were interested in communicating science. As only one of the trainees claim not to have done any public engagement at all since the workshop, 86 respondents, who seem to have been very actively engaging with the public and the media, remain. Hence, considering that the measured confidence among trainees have risen following the workshop(s) as mentioned above, it seems that the ESCONET project has had and will have a positive impact on society over all.

Project website: