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Years of dividends from a three-minute investment

The 3MT competition helps nurture a critical skill for academics, scientists and researchers who must ensure that academic research and its benefits for society are effectively communicated to the public.

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The rise of online disinformation and the intensifying use of social media have enabled the untrammelled dissemination of false claims by faux experts. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish attractively-packaged soundbites from academically-informed discourse.

THE idea was a brilliantly simple one - challenge PhD students to explain their theses in just three minutes using only one PowerPoint slide, in a way that laypeople can comprehend. Whereas a typical 80,000-word thesis would take nine hours to present, the contestants are given all of 180 seconds to do so.

Since its first run in the University of Queensland in 2008, the Three Minute Thesis (or 3MT) competition has gone from strength to strength, with over 600 universities and institutions in 65 countries participating yearly.

Always game for a joust, Singapore's four research-intensive universities - National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD) - have also jumped enthusiastically onto the 3MT bandwagon.

The grand finals were held last month to select the Singapore representative for the Asia-Pacific-wide competition in Brisbane in September. The winner was John Chan from SUTD, who spoke animatedly about his 3D photo printing innovation that will significantly enhance the security and integrity of photo ID cards, among other applications.

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DIVERSE DISCIPLINES

His was among 12 compelling presentations that spanned disciplines as diverse as medicine, engineering, psychology, political science, sociology and business.

The theses presented were equally varied, from the virtues of busy-ness to the optimal pricing of rice, from the use of worms to understand human birth defects to studying tree rings for water resource management.

Apart from the adrenaline rush that such a competition must have given the participating students, what is the value of initiatives such as 3MT for the future of academic research and its contribution to society and our economy? In a word, communication.

However complex their subject matter, all the contestants had to distil the essence of their theses, and articulate exactly how their research advances societal interests. As the academics, scientists and researchers of the future, this is a critical skill that all of them must seek to master, and to nurture early in their careers.

With countries such as Singapore investing more heavily in research and development to forge the newest innovation, develop the next cure or resolve a longstanding social issue, it is imperative that academic research and its benefits for society are effectively communicated to the public.

Societies are becoming increasingly technologised, with apps, gadgets and networks such as the Internet of Things weaving their way into the fabric of our everyday lived experiences.

The fruits of research are leaving laboratories to enter our homes and indeed attach themselves to our bodies via a growing army of smart devices.

Are we to assume that people should simply welcome this state of being? Should we presume that people will unquestioningly accept the social transformations wrought by such technological shifts? Certainly not.

Hence, it is crucial that research directions are interrogated so that they can be constantly reshaped to enhance societal understanding and knowledge advancement.

The goals, processes, outcomes, limitations and impact of academic research must be cogently conveyed so that the merits of both basic and applied research are well appreciated by stakeholders, and granted the requisite support.

Worryingly, the rise of online disinformation and the intensifying use of social media have enabled the untrammelled dissemination of false claims by faux experts.

In our increasingly strained attention economy, where consumers are inundated with a deluge of information from a plethora of sources, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish attractively-packaged soundbites from academically-informed discourse.

In his thought-provoking book The Death of Expertise, professor Tom Nichols decries that the explosion of online information has paradoxically produced less well-informed citizens who in turn disparage intellectual scholarship and cast doubt on experts. He argues that such ignorance breeds disengagement by the citizenry and undermines the democratic process.

Research and development have grown into key drivers of the Singapore economy. Indeed, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung affirmed last month that Singapore's economic strategy of fortifying the science and technology sector is showing encouraging signs of success with the emergence of startups and a growing international reputation.

It is thus more pressing than ever that academics and researchers are able to proactively and constructively convey the goals and value of their work to the broader public.

In doing so, they must strive to be accessible yet authoritative, straightforward but not reductionist. Certainly, researchers and academic institutions have a critical role to play in this communicative endeavour and must sharpen their ability to clearly and compellingly explicate the key thrusts of their research efforts, and the potential benefits these bring to bear.

Ultimately, academic research cannot merely reside in journal articles, hefty tomes and data repositories but must be shared and communicated with the wider audience whose lives it shapes.

TRANSLATING FOR LAY AUDIENCE

Universities and research institutions need to cultivate specialist professionals with the competencies to help researchers translate their work for multiple stakeholders, especially the lay audience at large.

Academics should also exploit the affordances of social media such as blogs, posts, tweets and podcasts to counterbalance the adverse effects of online disinformation. Furthermore, they must leverage opportunities in mainstream media to share their insights via interviews, expert columns and opinion-editorials.

At the same time, the media can also serve a vital role, grooming journalists who track academic research so as to curate and explain critical discoveries and key trends to the broader public.

In the three minutes that it took you to read this piece, did three misleading social media clickbaits trigger more shares, or did three authoritative commentaries attract more eyeballs?

With more strategic efforts made in effective research communication, that trajectory is one we can well determine.

  • Professor Lim Sun Sun is head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.