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Prof. Robert Hofstra: ‘Researchers have to learn to address a wider public’

26 October 2010

They blog, tweet, have a website on their research and can be found on Hyves and Facebook. The Groningen Genehunters have a single aim in mind – making their work known to a wider group of people than just a select group of specialists. ‘Because’, feels geneticist Robert Hofstra, ‘researchers have to stop playing the professor in the ivory tower.’

Hofstra and his team of Genehunters from the Department of Genetics of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) have been nominated for the Annual Academic Prize, an award for researchers who know how best to draw the public’s attention to their results. ‘I think that researchers could do much more to make their research known to a wider public’, Hofstra explains his motivation for taking part in the competition. ‘We’re usually enthusiastic about our work and publish in many specialist journals. However, researchers are usually insufficiently aware that people outside our own circles are very interested in what we’re doing.’

Ivory tower

A questionnaire that Hofstra’s group held during the UMCG Open Day has reinforced this opinion: ‘Two thirds of those questioned indicated that they did not know enough about the role of heredity in the development of illness and a group of similar size wanted to know more.’

‘Many researchers are still sitting in their ivory tower’, claims Hofstra. ‘It’s easy to stay there but it’s high time we quit. The gap between us and the wider public must be bridged. It would be very strange if you had nothing interesting to report about your own research.’

Understanding and awareness

Hofstra thus states that researchers should return to a level where everyone can understand them, even econometrists working on complicated models. And it’s certainly not only because academic research is paid for with tax revenues and citizens have the right to know what their money is being spent on. Hofstra: ‘The least bit of research can easily cost half a million. Consider too, for instance, the EUR 5 billion that has been invested in the particle accelerator at Geneva. Spending such amounts obliges you to explain what it’s for.’

But perhaps much more important, according to Hofstra, is that knowledge transfer gives rise to understanding and awareness. This certainly holds true for his own department. It’s only when people know more about hereditary disease and the role of lifestyle has in its development that they can change their way of life.

Communicating differently

Scientists and academics generally find public relations and communication difficult, Hofstra thinks. ‘Not enough time is spent on these matters. They’re often considered too complicated or too time-consuming in advance.’ He does acknowledge that it takes a lot of thinking and creativity to present research well. Academics and scientists should therefore learn to communicate differently. ‘They should do so briefly and concisely and via other channels then they are used to.’ For instance by making better use of today’s new social media.

Hofstra and his fellow Gene Crackers, for instance, set up camp at the Noorderzon cultural festival in Groningen, in a science pavilion with its very own DNA bar. Visitors could have their DNA sealed in a necklace pendant. ‘We wanted something that would draw in a crowd. People will pass you by if things just seem complicated. Our project, however, managed to generate a lot of interest.’

Annual Academic Prize

On Wednesday 28 October, in the Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden, it will be announced which of the five finalists has won the Annual Academic Prize. The prize is an initiative of NRC Handelsblad, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). It will go to the research team with the best communication plan for their research. The winning team will receive EUR 100,000 and their research will feature on national television in broadcaster VPRO’s science programme Labyrinth. ‘Our goal is to show how fascinating DNA is and how important DNA and lifestyle are in healthy ageing’, Hofstra says.

The Groningen researchers have come up with the railroad track as metaphor for DNA. Should the Genehunters manage to win the Annual Academic Prize, they plan to use the funds to convert an NS train into the LifeLinesExpress, where people will be able to learn all about DNA.

Curriculum Vitae

Professor of Developmental Genetics Robert Hofstra is head of the Genetics research group at the University of Groningen. He conducts research into monogenic and complex diseases. His research group has discovered various genes related to a wide variety of diseases, including Hirschprung’s disease (a congenital disease involving a malfunctioning bowel), a hereditary cancer syndrome involving tumours in the thyroid gland and hereditary colon cancer.

Note for the press

Contact: Robert Hofstra, tel. +31(0)50 361 7100

Last modified:30 November 2017 3.41 p.m.
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