• From the classroom to the French Ministry for Research

  • Authors | Opinion | Researchers

    An interview with Nicolas Ngo, Head of the Science and Society Relations Department at the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation in France.

    Nicolas Ngo’s goal is to build an outlook of science that works both with and for society, whilst keeping the field open to individuals from different backgrounds and skill-sets to increase collective intelligence.

    Starting out as a math teacher, Nicolas Ngo has always had a passion for transmitting science. After inspiring his pupils with out-of-the-ordinary math puzzles, he dived into science communication at the “Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie” museum in Paris. Whilst there, he imagined, uplifted and delivered public outreach of science exhibitions. He spent four years there, working with both the public and researchers to encourage curiosity for science in those eager to learn.

    Further down the line, he is now Head of Department at the Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation in France. “They were looking for someone from both the education system and public outreach worlds. From my two previous experiences, I checked all the boxes. That's how I became ‘Mr. Scientific Culture’ at the Ministry of Education and then the Ministry for Research and Innovation,” he discloses.

    Coming from a scientific background seemed almost mandatory to him. Although, Nicolas also learnt to develop alternative skills and find the right mix of people to sit by his side. This means that, at the ministry, Nicolas surrounds himself with people from varying backgrounds.

    “People from different fields add to the collective intelligence. I work in a very transversal department so if you find yourself surrounded by super specialists, you lose contact with society,” he explains.

    This assortment of profiles is particularly important when trying to implement and monitor frameworks for national public policies and long-term strategies. In France, around 1,300 players are involved in scientific culture, reaching a total of 17 million people each year. Nicolas organizes the National Governance of Scientific Culture at both the national and regional scale, and on an individual level too.

    “I make sure there is coherence between all projects, then support them and create favorable conditions so their actions are as efficient as possible at all levels,” he adds. “I am no longer in direct contact with the general public. Although I try to, whenever I have the chance. But, I have a position which allows me to do things that you can’t do when you’re a player on the ground.”

    Either way, the goal remains ultimately the same. “You hope to see that sparkle in the eyes of a child or an adult when they understand the magic of science. You want the encounter between a citizen and a scientist to be a memorable turning point that inspires astonishment and curiosity, and pushes them to want to know more. You’ve won if you’ve managed to do that,” Nicolas says.

    He adds, “This feeling of working for the common good is very rewarding. Working for research in the service of advancing knowledge within society is a very noble mission, I find.”

    So how do you get to be that person? Quite simply “stay curious” and find new ways to communicate.

    Since the 1970s, there has been a push to open the door to scientific knowledge for citizens as we move forward in a vastly technological world. “There used to be this very top-down perspective of the all-knowing scientist explaining to the average person,” Nicolas describes. “But, in recent years, we are becoming increasingly concerned with dialogue, listening to the general public and trying to install an interchange between science and society. We want citizens to participate, contribute and get involved in research activity. But that assumes researchers are trained, informed, and motivated by the stakes at play.”

    Science communication is not only useful for the public. Researchers get a lot out of it too. “Clearly explaining the complexity of your thoughts and your science can help put research into context and understand the power of the science,” he explains.

    Scientists are a prime target to improve the outreach of scientific knowledge. And not only for themselves. “Scientific interest aside, researchers have a social responsibility to raise awareness. Sharing their expertise with the general public and decision-makers ensures that knowledgeable and factual decisions are made,” adds Nicolas. “A media like Hindawi has a duty, from this point of view, to promote this awareness by sensitizing researchers to this issue.”

    Initiatives such as the Hindawi Science Communication Guide will help both scientists understand the issues at stake and inspire professionals. Promoting awareness is necessary to keep science open, accessible and woven into national policies.

    “It is often hard to precisely reach those who need it the most. By improving the way science is communicated by scientists, you are increasing the number of people who have access to that information, and understand the message,” explains Nicolas.

    To conclude, science communication offers a powerful tool to promote research findings. That can happen when we work together. In the words of Nicolas Ngo, that can happen by taking the path of a science that is both “with and for society”.

    This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) . The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

    M. Rozenbaum

    14 Oct 2020

    Oxford University graduate with a Masters in Neuroscience, Mia is an experienced science journalist for outlets such as Huffington Post and the New Scientist. She is also the science writer for Understanding Animal Research.

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