A couple of days ago, I received a flurry of LinkedIn messages – people congratulating me on six years managing the New Zealand Science Media Centre. Some automated LinkedIn alert had flagged an anniversary I had overlooked.
Well, those six years have flown by in what has amounted to the most productive, rewarding and interesting period of my career.
Our three person SMC team in Wellington has worked on all sorts of stories – from the Christchurch earthquakes to the swine flu pandemic, supported hundreds of journalists covering science and even created Sciblogs, which has given science blogging a bit of critical mass in New Zealand.
I’ve learned a lot about the science itself, how to communicate it and watched the bottom fall out of the industry I know and love – the media.
The key conclusion I’ve come to after six years in this business is that when it comes to effectively communicating science and improving the public’s understanding of it, the biggest difference can be made by the individual scientist committing to science communication.
As Fiona Fox, the founder of the original and hugely successful Science Media Centre in London has put it: “the media will do science better when science does better media”.
On this I totally agree. There isn’t much we can do about disappearing newspaper advertising or cutbacks in newsrooms – this is bigger than us. There’s little we can do to halt the blurring line between independent editorial and vested interests, or the proliferation of pseudoscience across the internet.
But against all of that, scientists can do one thing – commit to becoming better communicators. By understanding the changing needs of the media, recognising the priorities and preoccupations of society, adopting the tools and techniques that are essential to making sure a message has cut-through and resonance, scientists do themselves, their area of science and society a huge favour.
Which makes it really depressing then to see tweets like this…
Nothing like opening an email from a professor who tells me I do science communication because I’m obviously a terrible scientist 🙂 #bully
— Nanogirl (@medickinson) May 30, 2014
I’ve heard variations of this from, generally younger scientists, who are committed to science communication. For those who make it integral to their scientific careers, there is often a lot of pushback and cynicism from other scientists, superiors and their institutions. On one level this is understandable – if a scientist is blogging, touring schoolrooms or making TV shows, they have less time to spend in the lab doing research. But increasingly, progressive institutions and senior scientists are grasping the fact that good communicators make for better scientists.
Doing all of that other stuff, which fundamentally requires you to articulate what your life’s work is all about, enhances how you go about answering the big questions in your research. I’ve seen plenty of examples of this with scientists we have worked with. Their communications work has opened doors to scientific collaboration, allowed them to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems in different ways and allowed them to flesh out their research proposals more convincingly.
The majority of them are as prolific as their colleagues who don’t do much science communication – they publish as many papers, given as many presentations to their peers. That’s because true science communicators build communication into everything they do and the really smart ones know how to re-use and repackage their communication for maximum effect – an abstract becomes a blog post which becomes a media interview which becomes a public talk. There will always be those scientists who are not comfortable communicating – their place is the lab and many of them will only pop up when their research is published and generates a blip of media coverage. But for the average scientist, it doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario and it shouldn’t be because good communicators are better scientists.
So it was nice to see Dr Dickinson, whose Nano Girl blogs are syndicated here on Sciblogs, receive the following reply on Twitter…
@medickinson Prob. from prof of average ability who should retire & make way for younger academic who understands 21st century universities
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) May 31, 2014
I bet that made Michelle’s day!
But you don’t have to front a BBC show to make an impact as a science communicator. Most scientists will do numerous small things that collectively boost their confidence and their ability to articulate their science and its relevance to society. It is deciding to do a five minute interview with a small community radio station because it gives you an opportunity to practice explaining your science live on-air. It is composing 500 words and submitting it to the local newspaper op-ed page when your area of science is in the news – and writing it in a way that the comment editor can’t resist running.
Getting Science Media SAVVY
If you are keen to improve your science communication, particularly for media interaction, check out our two-day intensive Science Media SAVVY courses. We have course coming up in Hamilton and Auckland with new ones being held around the country all the time. New funding from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has allowed us to lower the price of these courses to $595 + GST per participant which is fantastic value for money. The workshops are restricted to 12 participants so scientists so its an intimate setting with plenty of one-on-one help. The additional funding has also allowed us to offer two scholarships per workshop for post graduate students to attend for free.
We will, in the coming months, also be offering short SAVVY courses on various aspects of science communication.
Register your interest in a SAVVY course in your region or apply for the upcoming workshops. And more importantly, undertake to do whatever you can to communicate your science more effectively, however small that undertaking is.