It is about daring to show your enthusiasm

If you want to make people curious about your research, you must dare to show your audience how excited and enthusiastic you are about your work. When professor of economics Philipp Schröder - the recipient of the 2013 Aarhus University Anniversary Foundation Research Communication Prize - gives his guided tour of the realm of international commerce, outsourcing and productivity, he truly lays bare his personal commitment to his project and gives it full throttle.

As a young student at University of Warwick, economics professor Philipp Schröder thought that research communication amounted to just compiling your results into a brief and densely packed presentation. But after 20 years of doing research, he has grown much wiser, having given more than 100 lectures to leaders of the Danish and international business community, to public decision-makers and others with an interest in commerce.

“It took me a few years to come to view research communication as a discipline in and of itself, which requires a certain skill-set that you must acquire. In the beginning I just presented a lighter version of my research results, but, for good reason, I never managed to capture my audience,” says Philipp Schröder.

Today, the recipient of Aarhus University’s research communication prize 2013 is much richer in experience and has developed his own understanding of the discipline:

“As far as I see it, successful research communication requires two things: You must take as your point of departure your audience’s understanding of the subject - and not your own. And you must convey why you are so thrilled about your work that you are willing to dedicate hours and hours to one particular project, the essence of which can be explained over the course of one or two slides.

Conveying the meaning of mathematical models

Philipp Schröder is director of the Tuborg Research Centre for Globalisation and Firms at the Department of Economics and Business.  Since 2008, the researchers from the department have worked hard to earn no less than two large grants from the Tuborg Foundation. One of the requirements of both grants is that the centre’s research must be communicated to the Danish business community.  Philipp Schröder has lost his researcher’s heart to topics that are not exactly common to every man, such as the balance of trade, outsourcing, productivity and competitive performance - and this places certain demands on his ability to impart knowledge. 

“In my research I produce mathematical models that represent reality. So when it comes to conveying my research, I have often glanced enviously at the significantly more palpable natural sciences, where researchers cure diseases or can straightforwardly demonstrate their results to an audience with a simple experiment,” says Philipp Schröder and recalls the first time he chose to separate himself from his younger self’s unenlightened perception of what it takes to be a successful research communicator.

International attention

In collaboration with his colleagues in the research group Globalisation and Industry Dynamics at the former Department of Economics at AU, he has authored several papers that have caused a stir on an international scale. Their results built on a piece of financial insight that started to spread in the latter part of the 1990s; namely that international commerce was no longer controlled merely by countries and framework conditions. The companies themselves and their ability to do well in the markets also played a major role.  

This was central to the group’s research. Among other things, the researchers established that a mere 10 per cent of the Danish export companies were responsible for as much as 90 per cent of the Danish export revenue. 

A crucial turning point in Philipp Schröder’s work with research communication was in 2009 at the New Year’s reception at the former Aarhus School of Business (today School of Business and Social Sciences). On such a festive occasion he did not want to overwhelm his audience with talk of methodology, mathematical models and a representation of the piles and piles of research papers that the group’s research was based on. So he made a drastic decision:

“Right there, in front of management, research colleagues and stakeholders, I did a presentation, which roughly overlooked all our research papers and instead grappled the reality that me and my colleagues had spent so much time describing by way of our models. It was about how we Danes convert bacon to mobile phones through international trade,” relates Philipp Schröder. He tried to make his points visual by way of what he calls “concrete but awfully un-academic PowerPoint animations.”

The presentation was well received by the audience and especially the stakeholders from the business community, who said that the research contributed with new knowledge that they could relate to specific challenges in their own work.

Thanks to a coach and a colleague

Philipp Schröder refuses to take sole credit for what is essentially a collaborative effort. Especially given the fact that the results and knowledge he has conveyed to the public over the years derive from research done by a dynamic group of researchers both from Denmark and abroad.

Moreover, he puts a lot of effort into thanking the people who have helped him strengthen his approach to research communication. He emphasises a particularly inspiring pedagogical course led by Associate Professor Ole Lauridsen from the former Learning Styles Lab at Aarhus School of Business, who today is deputy director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CUL): “He taught me the value of focusing on the recipient’s perception of things, and that one photo says a lot more than five numbers.”

Moreover, Philipp Schröder also refers to communications coach Bent Nørgaard, who doled out valuable advice to the competitors in the Danish University Extension’s ‘research fight’ (Forskerfight) in 2010, which was won by Philipp Schröder himself. Here he was taught that if you want to convey knowledge successfully, you have to have the courage to show your audience how excited you are about your research. 

“When you have spent two or three years researching a narrow field, you are allowed to show that you are passionate about the topic. You have to dare to make an impact with your voice and through your body language and show that you have thought really hard about how to communicate your knowledge to your audience. And then, by the way, there is no shame in rehearsing in front of the mirror.  This is precisely the lessons that I am trying to impart to my Ph.D. students today,” says Philipp Schröder. 

New research contributions

But why do we even need to communicate research?

“It is part of being a modern university,” answers Philipp Schröder directly.

“When we do these lectures or presentations, we also often get feedback from the business community and public decision-makers, who in turn help us focus on interesting questions related to globalisation,” he adds.

But the listeners certainly also have an interest in what is being presented. The researchers at the Tuborg Research Centre produce knowledge that is valuable to Danish export companies, and they have had no shortage of enquiries from e.g. the Confederation of Danish Industry, the Ministry of Business and Growth, the Danish Productivity Commission, the Danish Export Association, Danske Bank, the Trade Council and several other organisations. 

But will this be enough to motivate a researcher to continue researching these fields?

“Yes, definitely. I am more engrossed by globalisation and international commerce than any of the other topics I have worked with throughout the years. The field is always progressing,” says Philipp Schröder before revealing one of the secret goals of his career:

“At a certain point - preferably before I retire - I would like to write a basic textbook on globalisation and trade. The most skilled economists are after all not those who are alive today, but those who will succeed us.”

Facts about the prize:

The winner of the Aarhus University Anniversary Foundation Research Communication Prize receives DKK 100.000. The prize is awarded annually to a researcher, who has been especially dedicated to advancing the field of research communication.

The prize has been awarded annually since 2006.