by Emma Timewell
In science organisations, we hear the phrase science communication bandied around a lot, but there are a number of different ways this can come into practice. For myself, I am a science communicator – my day to day role is to take the science that others conduct and translate it into language that non-scientists can relate to.
There are prizes for science communication, including the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize and the NZAS Science Communicators Award – for scientists who communicate, rather than those professional science communicators amongst us (a personal bugbear). These are aimed at those who demonstrate exceptional communication of their research area, but recently have focused primarily on communication via the media; somewhat misleading as the media is probably one of the smallest audiences for science communication.
The majority of scientists are constantly communicating – through presentations at scientific conferences, scientific publications or lecturing. However, there is a wider field of communication not widely considered and certainly not routinely discussed – talking to school groups or teachers, writing general interest books, making videos, writing columns or blogs – and all require time and experience to really get it right.
My personal experience has been that those scientists who teach first year undergraduates are generally much better at communicating their favoured topic beyond the traditional scientific sphere. In order to inspire and engage students, and ultimately to encourage them to consider specialising in a particular field of science, lecturers must themselves be engaging and also know how to break down their science to the most basic level. Many scientists find this hard – to remove the precision from their work is considered tantamount to destroying decades of their research.
Most scientists have little imperative to communicate beyond the accepted channels for their discipline. The PBRF system requires university researchers to report on their research outputs, the quality of their research as recognised by their peers and demonstrate their contribution to the research environment. Crown Research Institutes are similarly required to report on the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications.
Communication is vital in building a country that understands and values science and scientists, as well as ensuring the science workforce is maintained through the generations. As such, science communication – beyond the academic sphere – is a skill that should be celebrated and acknowledged across the board. In an ideal world, it would be taught as part of a science degree (whether at undergraduate or postgraduate is a topic of debate) so that all scientists have the skills to communicate as a matter of course.
As a science communicator, I would love to have my pick of scientists who can not only engage a non-scientific audience with passion – a passion I know they all have for their science but many find hard to maintain when speaking publicly – but also have the skills to break down their research to a generalist level and appreciate that this doesn’t necessarily “dumb down” their science. For this to happen across the board, communication needs to be recognised as a valid, and vital, part of the scientific process.
Emma Timewell is senior communications advisor at Plant & Food Research and an executive member of the Science Communicator’s Association and the Association for Women in Science. The views expressed in this blog are personal and should in no way be construed as those of any of the organisations Emma represents.