Martin Bernhofer: Cyberscience - Using New Tools to Understand and Communicate Science in the Digit

by Eleonora Windisch

Martin Bernhofer
Director of the Science, Education and Society Department, Ö1
Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF)
Vienna, Austria
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photo credit: ORF

Martin Bernhofer, specialist in theater and hispanic studies, writer and journalist, lecturer and moderator, has been at the head of the Science, Education and Society Department of the radio station Ö1 (Austria 1) at the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) since November 2002. A fish-out-of-water some might argue, Dr. Bernhofer is a highly versatile and broadly experienced communications professional. The skills that Dr. Bernhofer acquired over the past two decades have allowed him to gain valuable experience and expertise in a field usually reserved for experts.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Drawing on his educational background and his diverse interests, Martin Bernhofer began to work as a young journalist with the ORF in 1985. Since starting in the Science and Education Department of the ORF's radio channel Ö1, Dr. Bernhofer became slowly immersed in cyberscience. Without any formal training in science, Dr. Bernhofer learned the ropes of the trade "by the seat of his pants." For many years he worked for science programs such as the Ö1-series "Dimensions," "The Salzburger Nightstudio," and "Radiokolleg." In 1999, he was promoted to head up the Ö1 Science Department's project management, program development and production divisions, where his duties included the dissemination of content, the planning and organization of the station's symposia and other scientific events. Following in 2000, he played a key role in launching the ORF's internet science website science.ORF.at. That same year, his professional expertise was rewarded when Dr. Bernhofer was awarded the Austrian State Prize for Science Journalism.

At his inaugural speech as newly nominated Director of the Ö1 Science, Education and Society Department, Dr. Bernhofer defined his main task as follows: "The ORF's science editorial team wants to become an active partner for the Austrian science and research community, while at the same time providing an interface between innovative knowledge and society."


A major step into this direction had been taken already in 2000 when the ORF finally entered cyberscience with the launch of its internet science website. Dr. Bernhofer underlines that science.ORF.at was not merely created as a science news source but that the site is meant to merge the opportunities that arise from online communication with the high standard of science journalism set by the ORF's radio channel. At the same time, science.ORF.at is to serve as an interactive platform and portal for the Austrian science community, providing "a playground to experiment with science communication in a new medium," he says. That this playground is also widely used is documented by the number of daily hits, which according to the Austrian Internet Radar (AIR) were up to 30,000 hits per day in May 2004, up by 35 percent since the site's inauguration in 2000. It is key to keep up the quality of the channel, Dr. Bernhofer believes, since "the typical user of science.ORF.at is fairly critical and brings in a lot of expertise." He added that the "new form of communicating science via the internet leads to a tremendous acceleration of the flow of information, forcing drastic changes onto the science publishing industry. Simultaneously, content selection and orientation become increasingly important for science journalists," Dr. Bernhofer emphasizes.

The number of listeners of Ö1 science and educational programs has, according to Dr. Bernhofer, seen a continuous increase over the past decade. While educational programs such as "Radiokolleg" achieve up to 130,000 daily listeners, the specialized science programs show figures ranging between 50,000 and 70,000 daily listeners.

In public opinion science is sometimes still perceived as "reigning in its own sphere, beyond real life," says Dr. Bernhofer. Although everyday life is constantly permeated by results of science and research, reservations still prevail. Dr. Bernhofer, however, is not discouraged by this gap. "The public needs to be sensitized to new thinking," he adds. This can only be achieved by establishing a dialogue between the sciences and the public. Whereas science journalism must try to become a "tool for life of the special kind" by showing practical implications for daily life, the internet can become a meeting point, where "the raucous, fidgety and undisciplined public can break into the calmness of the scientific ivory tower," Dr. Bernhofer says.

In accordance with the overall science programming, Dr. Bernhofer designs program-related scientific symposia and off-air events aiming at forging a closer relationship between programs and target audience while at the same time strengthening the Ö1 trademark in the field of Austrian science communication. These events are usually organised in cooperation with local partners, ranging from universities, government institutions to arts agencies.

Not only does Dr. Bernhofer train future science journalists by teaching science communication and media relations, he also frequently gives talks for scientists and researchers. "The worlds of science and media are very different by nature," Dr. Bernhofer stresses. While scientists focus on accuracy and consistency, journalists are more concerned with timeliness and comprehensibility. Dr. Bernhofer underlines that "scientists must be willing to succumb to a 'reduction of complexity' if they wish to use the media to disseminate the results of their research to a larger audience."

Dr. Bernhofer, who holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Theatre Studies from the University of Vienna, is the author and editor of several books, including a treatise on Spanish writer Valle-Inclán (Darmstadt, 1992), and most recently, an anthology entitled Questions for the 21st Century (Vienna, 2000). The latter is a compilation of essays, in which more than 40 authors share their observations and visions on the development of science and technology, culture and society.

Related links:
Austrian Broadcasting Corporation: http://www.ORF.at
Austrian Broadcasting Corporation: Science Channel: http://science.ORF.at
Postgraduate Program on Science Communication: http://www.scimedia.at/media.php
Radio Austria 1: http://oe1.ORF.at{/access}