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Why universities need to tell better stories


To make the public care about science research, the universities that employ the scientists must improve the methods they use to communicate their achievements, says Kylie Ahern.


Many universities still use old-fashioned methods of communication their research.
Many universities still use old-fashioned methods of communication their research.
Paul Hardy / Getty

As a science publisher, I hear amazing stories of science every day: brain research, superbugs, robots, gravitational waves, weird and wonderful animals, dinosaur digs, and human migration and evolution. We have thousands of extraordinary scientists with fascinating stories, whose work impacts all aspects of our lives.

And yet, when research funding is cut, there is never a huge outcry from the Australians whose lives are impacted by the very research being put at risk.

For many Australians, universities are solely places of teaching and learning – there is little understanding that campuses are also filled with researchers making extraordinary discoveries in fields that make a real difference in everyone's lives: dementia, artificial intelligence, addiction, cyber security, species protection and agriculture. As a result, the public puts little value on that research.

As a sector, we complain that there isn’t enough science coverage in media. While those complaints are justified, media coverage, or the lack of it, is not solely to blame for the lack of public interest. Universities don’t understand the general public and how to communicate and connect with them. Sure, they are on Twitter, but they struggle to build a truly engaged audience. If you doubt that, consider this: if you had a bad health diagnosis, would you turn to a university website for information about your condition? Unlikely. It’s probably one of the last places you’d think to go.

This means there is no connection between ordinary Australians and the scientists who are changing their lives. Few can name the country’s great researchers and, as a consequence, few care, or even notice, when the funding is cut. Nor do they see the value in contributing to this vital work through donations of their own.

The extraordinary rise of disruptive technology over the past 15 years means traditional media is no longer the only way to communicate with the public. New websites and brands have popped up with very small teams, and they command large audiences and respect. It’s never been easier to share stories with audiences around the world, but the scientific community has to create content that people want to read.

Despite the wealth of exciting stories on their own doorstep, most university sites are still PR driven. The core of the problem is that university communications are still rooted in the past. For many, it is still the 1990s, when press releases were the best way to capture the media’s attention. Now, universities can reach that audience directly, but they don’t, because their content hasn’t evolved. Yet the lessons from the media are still there for the taking.

To build an audience and the influence that comes with it, you need to create content that people trust and want to read and share. Universities need to stop putting their message at the heart of every story and start thinking about their audience. What do they want to know? What are their questions, concerns and inspirations?

If you want to talk about your research, don’t turn it into the thin stuff of press releases, rather provide the rich context of the global perspective. Transparent self-promotion will never win readers’ trust and bring them back to your website again and again. Don’t be afraid to reference other research; tell me about the future implications – and make it a cracking great read!

The media’s influence relies on its ability to command and engage audiences – people who return regularly because they want and trust the content they find there. If the scientific community wants to get its message across, it also needs to build audiences, own its narratives and place universities at the heart of peoples’ lives.

Kylie Ahern is CEO of STEM Matters, a content agency that specialises in helping universities and research organisations communicate with wider audiences, and a co-founder of COSMOS.
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