David Sinton, Professor with the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto and a Theme B researcher, recently worked with CMC communications staff to publicize a research paper that appeared in the journal Energy and Fuels. The release generated media attention and attracted industry interest in his work. Here he speaks about the value of the process.
Why do you think a researcher should speak to the media about his or her work?
It is important to reach a broader audience, both the energy industry – because they are potential users – and the public – because they are ultimately funding the work. Perhaps most importantly, the feedback, both in terms of content and quantity, is very informative. What aspects resonated, and which aspects did not? As academics, sometimes we are not always in tune with these audiences. The journal peer-review process is essentially professors talking to professors, and it provides an in-depth, but ultimately narrow view of the work. Facing a broader audience forces the researcher to put the work in a large context, and that is healthy. Although many researchers, including myself, recoil at the idea of being viewed as a media-darling, or as sensationalizing our work, there is a growing acceptance that our work should see more than an academic audience. My recent press release was a bit delayed, and I was surprised that I got inquiries from companies only after the press release – I would have thought those same industry people would have been reading Energy & Fuels. I was wrong.
Any advice to scientists preparing for a media interview?
I’m no expert, but one of the challenges is that interviewers seek certainty, and researchers tend to make more guarded, qualified comments. Sometimes there is no bridging this divide, but the researcher should – as much as possible – provide clear and simple statements about the work. As an example, you may not be able to explain in a sound bite the total CO2 emissions avoided, because that is complicated, you should be able to explain in a sound bite why you are doing what you are doing.
How did you find the whole process, from speaking with CMC communications staff to having your photo taken to doing media interviews? It’s a lot to ask of a busy researcher – is it worth it?
It was all painless, a few phone interviews and follow-up emails. I was really surprised that there is such an appetite for material from various energy news sources. It was certainly worth it, the industrial contacts, feedback and ensuing discussions have pointed us in some new promising directions that were not on my radar previously. In the case of one new company contact, I had met previously with other people inside the same company, and things were not moving forward. I assumed that company was not interested in the work, and I was wrong. Most Canadian energy companies are large organizations and it is difficult to reach the right people inside.