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26 May 2018
New Voices: Building Uptake Capacity amongst Young Researchers Print
Monday, 08 December 2014 19:31

This blog outlines an innovative programme at the University of Stellenbosch which builds the capacity of emerging researchers to promote Research Uptake, by developing their Science Communication skills.


Responsible science communication is about sharing research insights simply and confidently, without falling into the trap of sensationalism. The University of Stellenbosch has implemented a programme “New Voices in Science” which supports young researchers to develop their Science Communication skills. This programme guides researchers as they prepare a popular piece based on their PhD research, which is then published in a publication called “New Voices in Science” and presented at an annual Colloquium, to a lay audience.



Developing a Science Communication Capacity Building Programme

For the first edition, published in 2012, Departments were asked to nominate PhD students to attend a Science Communication workshop, and it was expected that they would then be able to write up popular articles based on their research. However Science Communication is not an easy task, as scientists are traditionally trained to communicate only with their direct peers, who are well versed in the technical jargon of their field.


It became clear that the students needed more support in producing their science communications pieces for the articles to become more accessible to popular audiences and so the programme included more mentoring with training, feedback and a number of edits and re-writes. According to Prof Russel Botman, then-Rector of Stellenbosch University, writing in the second edition of the publication (2013) “ the ability to communicate science starts with an understanding and caring about what the public knows, and what they would actually like to know about our science. It’s all about finding ways to explain our science so that it responds to these questions and concerns.”


An Evolving Programme

Each year the programme has evolved. In the third year of the programme students were able to use three platforms to showcase their research – written, oral and through science photography. In addition, the oral presentations were brought down from 10 minutes to 6 minutes in the second year and finally to 5 minutes in the third year. This presented quite a challenge but each time the students, who started with an “impossible” task, always managed to achieve their objective. In fact, the 5 minute talks were better received than the 10 minute talks.

The training provided was tailored to the needs of the PhD researchers. Leading up to the public colloquium the training consisted not only of general science communication workshops followed by a period of writing and coaching workshops, but also training on public speaking.

The selection process for those participating in the programme also changed – in the first year it was only those nominated by departments who could participate in the programme, but from the second year people were able to self nominate and this brought in more diverse voices. Selection from the nominations was based on auditions, which proved valuable for the participants as well.


Science Communication and a democratic society.

Why is science communication important? According to Prof Botman “We believe that science communication creates a scientifically literate society, which is crucial to respond effectively to the challenges and opportunities we face… it holds scientists accountable and ensures that science is always employed in the service of society.”

Prof Eugene Cloete, the Vice Rector of Research and Innovation, wrote in the 2014 edition of New Voices in Science, “ Science communication makes for better science. By trying different ways of explaining their research, the students found new insights, fresh perspectives and improved scientific practice”.


Science Communication and Research Uptake

As has been noted in previous posts on the blogsite, Science Communication is an important part of Research Uptake. Many people do not read academic papers, partly because of time, but also because the academic papers are targeted at a different audience – those who are familiar with the field and the academic language. Research Uptake can only take place if the findings are presented in useable and accessible formats for practitioners and policymakers as well as other stakeholders. Building emerging researchers capacity to do this is an important step in the right direction.


For more information you can contact Ronel Steyn,, the Director of Postgraduate Skills Development or visit their website at


Alison Bullen is a Content Manager for the DRUSSA website