Golden award to communicating researcher

Text: Mats Hannerz

Congratulations Johanna Witzell! You have been awarded the “Guldkvisten” (golden branch) prize by the Swedish Forestry Association (Föreningen Skogen). Why do you think you were given the prize?

– First of all, I was fortunate because someone was kind enough to nominate me! The nomination emphasised my efforts to communicate research on forest diseases, and I think the Association decided to reward my efforts because they think the science-society interaction is important and necessary.

Research on pathogens and diseases in forest trees have been heavily covered in media in the last few years. Why this interest?

– Most people have a personal relationship with trees, in one way or other. When trees get sick or die, people get worried and want to know what is happening and if there is something they can do about it. During the past decade, we have seen an upsurge of several new forest diseases, especially here in the southern part of Sweden. This development has led to great interest in our research.

Do you have any tips for other researchers who want their results disseminated?

– Tricky question. Some topics are easier to translate to popular science and disseminate than others. In general, I would say be active and find your audience. Sick trees is not only a matter for forest managers, but also for gardeners, urban planners and the general public. You shall also be available when your expertise is needed – a journalist don’t give you the time to wait for your deep thoughts, they want immediate information. Finally, be genuine in your communication. Communicate what you know, if you don’t have the answers, say so.

What are the media channels you use?

– It is often the journalists who contact us first, but of course we issue press releases when we have interesting results. New pests with a risk of becoming a threat always draw attention. We are also active on social media, for example Facebook. Through this channel, we reach an international public.

Is time spent on communication in conflict with your research?

– In a way yes, because I am not financed to work as an extension pathologist. However, I feel it is my duty as an employee in a state university to provide advice to people when they ask for it, even if it comes at the cost of not having time to author more research publications. And it is also a two-way interaction because through the contacts with people I get to know the relevant research questions.


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