Communication and Engagement

“Thou shalt communicate”

There is so much science writing available now but how much of it is good? Scientists are often accused of not understanding journalism, take this story from the Guardian earlier this year – Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism, but with more and more science writers and blogs available, and a generally increasing audience, how long until blogs take over science journalism and why get involved?

I’d much rather explain the structure of DNA waving my arms in the air, unravelling the imaginary strands with my hands, than typing about it in a blog. I don’t consider writing a particular strong point, but I read you shouldn’t wait for your writing to improve to start writing, so yesterday I took a trip to the library. This was not my usual trip; enter library looking for a particular book, see nine others on the shelf next to it, take all home, leave them all on coffee table because they now look like far too much work and I have a new idea to keep myself occupied, take all back before reading them. Today I went looking for some answers.

I am a molecular biologist by training, coming to the end of a PhD, I know a lot about a little and the more I learn the more I feel other, more general, knowledge being pushed out to make room. One of the things I know nothing about is science writing for the public: scientific journals, I can manage; thesis, 40,000 words and counting; blogging, not a clue. I had planned to get hold of every “The Best American Science Writing”, a yearly collection of the best popular science literature. Unfortunately I couldn’t find them, although I’m sure they will feature in a future post, but what I did find from my list of 32 books on science writing and communication that currently sit in an Amazon wish list, were a couple of gems.

Introduction to communication studies, by John Fiske (1990) was the first book to grab my attention. Okay, so maybe this was at the bottom of my list of science writing ideas and help books, but it had quotes like this that made me think it was a good idea to consult some literature before delving into the world of science blogging too far;

“Communication is too often taken for granted when it should be taken to pieces.”

This doesn’t just relate to the papers and blogs we write, but to presentations, both formal and informal, and every time we talk about science. Communication is, as I read on the first page, diverse. There is definitely a difference between a good science blog and a bad one, like there are good books, good presentations and good teachers. So what can I learn from the good that I can borrow for myself to make my science communication better? Lets take presentations; I like presenting, although truthfully this was something I told myself so many times that it has now stuck and become true, and I feel like I am quite good at it. I know where to watch good presentations and look for the clues that make them successful. One of the best resources for this is TED talks and a recent blog post by TED presenter Nilofer Merchant got me thinking about successful talks again. Nilofer writes about what she learnt from a TED talk that didn’t go quite as well as it might “What I Learned from My TED Talk“. Instead of brushing it aside she chose to take the presentation apart. Very brave and commendable, and a prime example of how communication has to be taken apart, “learn to unlearn” in Nilofer’s words, to improve.

So why are we communicating, why are there so many science bloggers out there? It hasn’t always been so, for many years science was written only for the understanding of elite subset of scientists, with an interest in only the immediate area of research, and who would understand the codes. In the late 20th century there was a change, a revelation that science is essential to the public who should, therefore, have a general understanding of it and be privy to information on its advances. In many ways science is dependent on public understanding, after all it is the public taxes that are spent on a vast amount of it. In the case of charity funded research, like that which funds my PhD, communication with the public is essential to express the need for research to discover cures for diseases such as cancer to raise the money for that research.

The 1985 working-party report from the Royal Society, at the time chaired by David Attenborough, stated:

“Scientist must learn to communicate to the public…and…consider it their duty to do so.”

This was followed, in 1993, by a White Paper from the UK government exposing the need to,

“…improve scientist’ understanding of communication with the public, [with an] emphasis on communication skills in research training.”

So with all the science writing, and a slow progression towards open access research, it would appear we are moving in the right direction.

Finally some quick advice I have come across on the bad and what to avoid. There is no-one better than yourself to talk about your research, the aim is to make it entertaining enough for people to get to the end (I am hoping that you are still reading) whilst getting across some information that is both accurate and understandable. As scientist we can check the accuracy of what we read and hear against our own knowledge and experiences of the code and context used, but what if you have no knowledge, no experience. There is bad science communication out there which has necessitated then need for posts such as How to Read Science News. I definitely recommend the last point of the checklist – “ask a scientist for clarification”, we really don’t bite. Scientists are more accessible now than ever before, and with sites such as twitter you can talk to experts you would never meet in real life.

I believe as a scientist I should be engaging with the public…and so the blog begins.

References

Fiske, John. Introduction to communication studies. Routledge, 2010 (not open access).

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in public. Basic Books, 1998 (not open access).

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