Longer, Richer Science Media Rule in Academia-to-Industry Knowledge Transfer

How might scientists and science communicators learn from marketers to translate research into entrepreneur-worthy ideas and real-life applications? Laboratory Glassware. Shutterstock, http://tinyurl.com/p9tlhov.

Today, Nobel prizewinner Brian Schmidt had an opinion piece in Financial Review speaking to the need for more of a culture of innovation in the academic research sector. According to Schmidt: “[t]here is little contact with industry, role models for moving ideas out of the academic environment are rare, and therefore few industry players are interested in partnering with universities. Nor are academics rewarded for moving between industry and academia. Indeed the system strongly discourages such mobility through tenure, hard-to-transfer superannuation, and research quality measures.”

The one exception to this rule, Schmidt writes, is the biotech industry, where an environment of knowledge transfer between academic and industry has been more successful.

Fostering a knowledge transfer environment requires changes on many levels, including growth of meaningful relationships between academics and industry partners. However, one aspect of this environment is strong and effective science communication.

I ran across this paper today while searching for social media reading assignments for the public relations course I’m teaching at LSU this semester. The aptly titled paper ‘Shouting from the Ivory Tower’ was published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice this month.

“While academic research does offer insight of interest to practitioners’ needs, this can sometimes become obscured by the way in which it is communicated, and hence may frequently be bypassed by practitioners or not given sufficient consideration.” - DOI: 10.1111/etap.12079

The paper details a survey experiment of 129 entrepreneurs in Australia to evaluate their preferences for the length, source credibility, media richness and level of jargon in synopses of academic research, like those synopses entrepreneurs might receive in e-mails or newsletters from academic institutions, journals, etc. Within the context of an online survey, entrepreneurs from a variety of industries were presented with different versions of a synopsis of an academic research study and asked their level of preference for the alternative versions. Preference was also measured in a behavioral outcome – the likelihood of the entrepreneur to click through to a full research report, using a “read full article” hyperlink.

The alternative versions of the research synopsis differed in length (short 56-93 words; medium 125-159 words; long 250-275 words), source credibility (no author details; academic author; industry author), media richness (text only; text + diagram; text + diagram + video), and jargon (low; medium; high).

“In some cases, synopses will provide the sole exposure to research findings; however, in other instances, a synopsis may prompt entrepreneurs to further explore research (e.g., searching for full text articles or linking to complete reports via blog posts, online newsletters, or hyperlinks provided in emails). In order to effectively consider routes to the transfer of academic knowledge to entrepreneurship practitioners, understanding reactions to these types of research synopses is essential.” - DOI: 10.1111/etap.12079

The results of the survey experiment reveal that most entrepreneurs favor longer synopses, richer media (including diagrams and especially videos) and author credentials (with academic authors sometimes preferred over industry authors). The results for author credentials were mixed, however, as some entrepreneurs seemed to pay little attention to source credentials. The results for jargon were also odd: in some cases, entrepreneurs favored less jargon; in other cases, high jargon was preferred. High jargon is typically assumed to hinder knowledge transfer, but perhaps for some entrepreneurs already highly involved in scientific research reading, jargon is not a fatal flaw. The best message characteristics, in this case especially, will always depend upon the target audience’s pre-existing involvement.

What are the lessons science communicators can learn from this study? Don’t make your synopses of academic research papers for an entrepreneurial audience overly short. Also, embedding video or other visual content into blogs and webpages hosting these synopses (perhaps using university YouTube channels) is a must.

Do you have any other tips for communicating science to business and entrepreneur audiences?