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Nikhef head of communications Martijn van Calmthout talks about his switch to "the dark side"

'Our institute does not have the most cuddly subjects; we are not a zoo like Artis'

It was big news within science communication and journalism: Martijn van Calmthout, long-time Science Editor at de Volkskrant newspaper, switched in September 2018 to "the dark side": a journalist who goes and works in communication. He became head of communications at NWO Institute Nikhef. "The end of an era", wrote de Volkskrant, which referred to him as the spiritual father of sections such as Kennis en Wetenschap (Knowledge and Science). Now, six months on, he tells us about how his passion for science journalism arose, why he made the switch to Nikhef, and his experiences to date at the National Institute for subatomic physics.

'As a boy, I was already interested in news about stars, telescopes and the universe. A degree in physics and astronomy was therefore a logical step', says Van Calmthout. Newspapers and magazines already had a pull on him back then, and so he worked, among other things, as an editor of Utrecht University's student magazine. It was his first acquaintance with science journalism. 'If I had not done that I would probably never have graduated. Just physics proved to be too limited for me after all. Research requires an incredible amount of patience, and I do not possess that in large quantities. I discovered that being a journalist was far more fun because you get to see the research that is already completed. Then you see the triumphant side of science without having to endlessly wait.'

Fear of particle physics
Van Calmthout worked for thirty years as a science journalist at the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. He was the Science Editor for much of his career and wrote with considerable passion about a range of subjects including particle physics. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that he used to be genuinely afraid of this subject. 'I couldn't make head or tail of my first lecture in particle physics. I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. It took me ages to properly grasp the classification scheme of particles and even longer before I dared to write about this as a journalist. It is a world that most readers are not at all familiar with and which they find too abstract and elusive. As a journalist, however, sooner or later you come into contact with this discipline due to the many exciting discoveries being made in it. For example, the large experiments and the discovery of the Higgs particle. The field is brimming with stories to tell!"

From de Volkskrant to Nikhef
'Science journalism is a fantastic profession. I wrote about cool and exciting subjects, and I got a kick from delivering good work quickly. Even so, when I wrote about something for the fourth time, I began to feel that I was merely going through the motions. I started to look at other possibilities and discovered other fields that attracted my interest. And then Nikhef came my way', said Van Calmthout. Nikhef has an experienced communication team consisting of Vanessa Mexner, Martine Oudenhoven and Melissa van der Sande. Van Calmthout's added benefit for this club is his wealth of journalistic knowledge. 'Journalism is focused on the public's reaction: the reader. As a journalist, you think about how the outside world views something. At Nikhef, the research is highly technical and abstract. The organisation is mainly concerned with internal matters. Now the challenge is to translate that research into everyday language. Let the researchers talk not just about physics but also about how you convey research successes and how the outside world perceives these. For example, what exactly is a result? And how do you explain that even if you find nothing that also means something? These are genuine communication issues that I want to give shape to. The department has done that really well for many years. After all, as a journalist, I had a lot of contact with them. However, now that I have joined the team, there will be even more communication with the external world. I hope that as a relative outsider, I can contribute just that bit more.'

New initiatives
All of these new issues also require new forms of communication. For example, Nikhef will soon organise an internal symposium that will include contributions from Dutch language specialists and historians. 'Together we will discuss what makes our profession so important', says Van Calmthout. 'I also receive questions from colleagues about outreach, and I try to help them with good ideas. We also organise guided tours, participate in Girls Day and together with the University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam we brought the theatre show "Bonn Physics" to the Netherlands.' With press communication, he aims to leave the beaten track as much as possible and deviate from the "standard press release". 'Of course, we need the press. However, I would rather send something you make for journalists to everybody. We make use of the website for this, but also social media and podcasting.' He proudly talks about the launch of the new Nikhef magazine “Dimensies” (Dimensions) at the start of April as part of the new communication strategy. The first issue focuses on the improvement and upgrading of the particle accelerator LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN and the role that Nikhef plays in the various experiments there. 'The magazine showcases Nikhef’s latest research, and we want to spread it widely. With this publication, we show that our work is not only about particles and abstract physics, but that it has a human face too.'

General public
Van Calmthout was also appointed at Nikhef to build bridges as a science journalist between abstract science and the general public. 'I would like all of the Ten Catemarkt in Amsterdam to know who Nikhef is. But of course that it is not the case. We try to spread our message as widely as possible via different channels and media so that somebody who finds what we do interesting will certainly learn about our work. Nikhef does not have the most cuddly subjects; we are not a zoo like Artis. I try to show what we do in a meaningful way and in a tone that does not put people off. Then it is up to the public to decide whether or not they want to be informed about what we do.’

'Science is very inward looking, even in its communication with the outside world. Everything needs to be discussed with everybody, and the publication of news is often still just an afterthought. Groups who first want to hold their presentation at a conference and after that start thinking about a press release or website story. That is sometimes days after the news emerged, especially on social media. That is not acceptable. If we have news, then we need to be the first to shout it from the roofs. As a former journalist, I am sometimes really amazed by how little scientists take the needs of the public and journalists into account. You need to serve them hand and foot because otherwise, they will have a hundred other subjects grabbing their attention. Therefore my role is very much that of the court jester who asks why we do what we do and why the emperor is wearing no clothes. For the institute, I still need to be something of the silly former journalist. And fortunately, I am given plenty of opportunities to do that.'


About Martijn van Calmthout
Besides his work at Nikhef, Martijn van Calmthout (58) is also active in many other areas. He twitters (@vancalmthout), writes popular books about science (frequently about physics) and presents live science shows including the monthly KennisCafé (Knowledge Cafe) at De Balie in Amsterdam. For many years, he has also been a contributor to the NTR radio programme De kennis van nu (Today's knowledge). Martijn has two adult children and lives together with his partner in Amsterdam-Noord.

Text and photo: Melissa Vianen
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, March 2019

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