9 May 2023

Spaghetti-armed egghead strives to move people with facts

Dissemination Award

Hans Henrik Bruun is an especially active voice of reason in public discourse about the present and future of Danish nature. Whenever engaging, he often greets strong emotions with facts. This year's recipient of SCIENCE’s Dissemination Award considers it his research duty to do so and is not afraid to stick his research neck out into whatever storm or headwinds may be blowing.

Associate Professor Hans Henrik Bruun
Hans Henrik Bruun is the recipient of SCIENCE’s 2023 Dissemination Award. Photo: University of Copenhagen

"You are willing, determined and engaged in your conversations with the public. This is extremely important," said Dean Katrine Krogh Andersen in her speech to this year's recipient of the Faculty of Science's Dissemination Award.

Associate Professor Hans Henrik Bruun of the Department of Biology is known as an extremely active participant in public debate. From an abundance of media interviews to appearances at the People’s Festival of Nature and BLOOM festival, he is a committed communicator of his professional knowledge about nature and biodiversity. Whether the conversation has to do with wild gardens or wild boars in "rewilded" Danish nature, he is not afraid to challenge society’s current ideas and interests.

He describes his role as disseminator as a simple research responsibility – a positive, informational duty, as he puts it. In rough legal terms, this means that he feels compelled to testify in full about whatever he knows about a given case. For Bruun, the role is about giving back to society, about contributing to democracy's common understanding of reality within his field of expertise – even when inconvenient to do so.

"I believe that, as a researcher, it is my duty to contribute to sharing knowledge encompassed by my field of research. Sitting and waiting for journalists to call isn’t enough. In my opinion, this should be initiated by oneself. If there’s anything awry in public discourse having to do with one's field of expertise, it is a duty to jump in and disseminate our research-based knowledge," says Hans Henrik Bruun.

Comes at a price

Even though he encourages his research colleagues to get involved and not "flinch at the fear of being skewered by lobbyists", as he puts it, he does not want to point the finger at colleagues who choose to be less visible. Indeed, sticking one’s neck out comes at a price. And there have been painful occasions when reactions got very personal:

"It isn’t very fun to be accused of having ulterior motives or when someone goes after you personally. Time and time again I’ve heard: 'You're just such an outlandish, over-educated egghead with spaghetti arms in an ivory tower. You need to get a taste of reality!' But it's easy to see through," says the researcher.

Biologist Hans Henrik Bruun
Associate Professor Hans Henrik Bruun from the Department of Biology. Photo: University of Copenhagen.

Worse, according to Bruun, are attacks that go behind his back or are underhanded. Things can get tough when one dares to speak out against powerful interests. However, the recognition that can also come from lobbyists and interest groups when they accept that he is not promoting his own agenda, but driven by a duty to provide information, is important in the end.

"So, the answer will always be to keep the professional flag flying high. When this is acknowledged despite the disagreements, I take it as a compliment. And when you meet people who actually listen and can be moved by fact-based arguments. These things motivate me," says Hans Henrik Bruun.  

A surprised veteran

Even though the 57 year-old associate professor has appeared in the media for three decades, the award as communicator of the year still surprised him:

"I had no idea that the cake and bubbles were for me. So I was very surprised and delighted. It feels like an acknowledgement. The work that I’ve put into communicating to high and low hasn't been to win awards, but it's nice that others noticed. And the words that accompanied the award warmed my heart," says Hans Henrik Bruun.

Almost everywhere

Kind words were certainly bestowed upon the awardee. The Dean, Head of Department Niels Kroer and Head of Section Michael Poulsen, all agreed on several main points: Hans Henrik Bruun's efforts to communicate his field of expertise have been impressive in both depth and breadth, and he never cowered when adversaries fired away at him in public discourse.

"We selected you out of a strong field of candidates. We would like to recognize you for being a phenomenal and dedicated communicator. You have both scope and outreach, and work in various ways," said Dean Katrine Krogh Andersen.

"You're nearly everywhere," she said.

Promises not to donate the money away

The award came with a bouquet of flowers and 25,000 kroner that the recipient has not yet decided what to do with.

"Perhaps some of it will go to a really nice dinner at Geranium. That would be great. But I actually have no clue. Though, I promised my wife not to donate it to a good cause," laughs Hans Henrik Bruun, while emphasizing:

"The recognition that comes from receiving this award, and the support that goes into it, that's the most important thing for me," he says.