Reading the Guardian’s Must all postgrad research have impact? this morning I got to thinking about how my university, the University of Birmingham, communicates science. Economic times means money for research is tight and we are finding it increasingly important to communicate science well in order to achieve the impact, and with it the funding, our science deserves. Additionally, there is extra expectation in regard to science communication in Birmingham as 2014 looms and brings with two large science festivals.
The University of Birmingham has recently hired the fabulous Professor Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science and has started actively encouraging science communication within the University. Now, it would appear, is the time to get involved.
I have been interested in science engagement since starting my PhD some 3 years ago now, and recently found myself surrounded by inspirational science bloggers and writers the SpotOn London 2012 conference. Here is just some of the stuff I have learnt related to writing and communication:
- Science communication is all about the story. Doesn’t matter how well you write if it isn’t a good story it won’t make a good article. Conversely if it is a good story, a good editor will be able to re-write mediocre writing to get at a good article. Wisdom there from @ArranFrood, a brilliant freelance journalist who also told the best tip for writing is just to write. You can also watch the #solo12stories session to find out how those interesting stories can often be found hiding in the science, and also in the scientists.
- The data is not the interesting point of your science communications story – yes it might have a place, but it is probably not what people want to read. Nor do they want to read a text book. It is the quirks of the research, the history of science discovery, the impact the science will have, the trails and tribulations in the lab, and the love of our research that keeps dragging us back to the lab even after weeks of failure that will give you a good story. One day I shall get round to writing a post about appeasing the science god in order to get machinery/reagents/just general science, to work! And, now that I’ve invited you into the realms of my last 3 years in the lab, how can I fail to mention the “good data dance”.
- As a nation Britain has some amazing science communication – after all we do have the brilliant Ed Yong (award winning science write, curator of the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, and featured in the #solo12newmedia and #solo12journo sessions). As a nation we are good at turning science into stories; we have various highly renowned science comedy shows such as QI, The Infinite Monkey Cage, and the Museum of Curiosity, and events all over the country such as Cafe Scientifique, and the sometimes science related Skeptics in the Pub. Then there is the amazing touring science show: Festival of the Spoken Nerd. I got talking to @BenLillie, director of The Story Collider, about his work bringing science comedy to the US, and the impact that good communication has on public understanding of science. It would appear that the whole globe is waking up to the importance of good, and interesting, science communication.
I believe that scientists should be involved in communicating their research, and I have started my own adventure into science communication in the traditional style – a blog which you appear to have found. But a thought has been niggling at the back of my mind for a while now – why does the University of Birmingham have no science magazine? We have an award winning University Magazine – Buzz, and amazing and cutting edge research at the University of Birmingham so why are we not communicating this research? The answer is we do have a science magazine, SATNAV – Science and Technology News and Views, it’s run by students out of the Guild but I had never heard of it.
The last issue of SATNAV, issue 6, was a “mini” issue containing content such as The Dark Side of Gravity, and Variation Amongst Atheletes. I have no right to critique this magazine, I remember my experience running a student magazine with a mixture of sadness and regret. I edited the Collingwood College magazine during my time as an undergrad at Durham, well editing doesn’t really describe my role – to edit you first need someone (anyone) to write something. Mostly I wrote, and frantically put together, a couple of magazines in very little time, and with very little help – the only help I got was the coffee brought to me late at night.
In fact, the last issue of this magazine I curated was done over a 72 hour stint sat in the University computer room with publisher open on one computer, and my laptop working its way though an entire season of 24 to keep me company. I finished a sub-par edition with time to have a nap before the print deadline. I am still amazed I produced what I did, but was so sleep deprived by the end I thought I had watched a news story that showed America being bombed. I woke people up in the middle of the night on the way back to my room knocking on doors and shouting…
“America’s been bombed! “
…I have never since watched 24.
So my feeling is that it is about time that the University got behind this magazine, or one like it, and helped! Now I realise only a small proportion of readers of this blog will be involved with science in the University of Birmingham so why am I telling you this? Firstly I am advertising writing for a University magazine or blog as a good first step into the world of science communications for everyone. Stories, and yes it will have to be a good story to keep people interested, will generally be between 300-1000 words – short and relatively easy to do. The advice from the Oxford University Science Magazine, Bang! – which I recommend as an example of a good university science magazine, is to write a 100 word abstract for the editor.
To write for a uni magazine you do not have to set up a blog page, editors will generally give you feedback, and it can be a one off – although you might find you enjoy it! It can be a stepping stone from which to establish yourself as an expert in the field, or to write for other science publications, I shall not show favouritism by naming any. Really I don’t see the downside to attempting writing something – so what are you passionate about? Tell me, I shall wait to read about it in print!
Read about the stories behind doing a PhD by following Beckie on Twitter at @beckieport. WARNING: Science in progress