What defines a science communicator? #SciCommNZ

By Guest Author 08/05/2015


#SciCommNZ are a diverse community of science communicators who meet on Twitter to discuss how science is being communicated in NZ & beyond. Join the discussion on the second Wednesday of every month! www.scicomm.nz

#SciCommNZ chats launched into the Twittersphere on March 11th 2015 with the intriguing and challenging topic of “What defines a science communicator?”

There was plenty of tweep interest on the night and it was really pleasing to see the diversity of backgrounds represented- from educators to scientists and science communicators from universities and research institutes and private companies. Also, those involved in trusts, media, museums, zoos, artists and …. cue fanfare we even had participants representing ‘the public’ as well as overseas input.

We looked at eight questions over the chat:

  1. What does science communication mean to you?
  2. How do you engage in scicomm?
  3. What scicomm aren’t you doing that you would like to do?
  4. If you are in an organisation how do they define scicomm?
  5. What, if any, mismatch exists between an organisation and your own label of what scicomm is?
  6. How do you consider mainstream media (MSM) to define a science communicator?
  7. What do you think the public perception is of a science communicator?
  8. How can we unify our definition of a science communicator and broadcast it?

There were some really interesting themes that emerged from the chat. In future chat after-blogs we plan to pull out some of the chat themes into separate mini-blogs. In the first post-chat analysis though, I’ve dissected themes below for you.

1. What does science communication mean to you?

This question probably elicited the most discussion and lead to many side conversations. There was general consensus that science communication meant informing people and increasing science literacy in the populace, but also listening to people. All of this with the aim of leading to informed decisions, and potentially influences on ethics and culture.

I liked the concept that ‘neither party was outside’ with respect to scientists/science communicators and the public. There was talk of engagement, of transactions, of understanding the values of the audience. At its heart science communication might simply be sharing the wonders of our world and beyond through stories. This in turn though then leads to meaning and understanding and from there thinking about the next step. Scicomm can and should therefore lead to broader conversations.

Scicomm was described as not just the icing on the cake, but rather that evidence-based communications are an integral part of the science process. And at its core scicomm it was commented on is humanity-based and a community effort. I was a little surprised no one else also considered the more personal perspective of the question- what scicomm means to them: for me it is “the ability to express myself creatively, to think critically, evaluate, argue, & to ensure I am reaching the public, something I feel obliged to do”. 2. How do you engage in scicomm? Chat attendees were engaging in scicomm activities in a very broad range of ways – knowing your audience and listening were themes for this question. 3. What scicomm aren’t you doing that you would like to do? Writing science related books is a bucketlist dream for many. There was recognition for the need to evaluate scicomm activities better. Many also wanted to engage in improving school-tertiary interactions as well as making videos.

 

A strong theme coming out of this question was the desire to engage in scicomm with hard-to-reach communities. A thread arising from this resulted in the brilliant idea of Scientists Without Borders- SWOB. And another suggested the need for the Royal Society of Young Scientists.

4. If you are in an organisation how do they define scicomm? and
5. What, if any, mismatch exists between an organisation and your own label of what scicomm is?

These questions sparked interesting responses- ‘is there a definition?’ within their organisation some commented. Do organisations even know what science communication is? Some thought organisations might think of scicomm purely as branding for their organisation or even as research outputs- a much narrower definition than the chat attendees held. There was comment that science isn’t a bunch of facts; it’s a structured process for understanding the universe.

There was interesting discussion regarding the role of universities as critic and conscience of society and the conflicts some scientists face in speaking. People have had varying experiences within their institutions. There was talk of the conflict of public engagement vs. the pressures of the Performance Based Research Fund process and of concerns also of the cost of being an advocate.

6. How do you consider mainstream media (MSM) to define a science communicator? There was general consensus here that media might simply consider people who appear on TV, radio and in print discussing science as science communicators, such as David Attenborough. Comment was made to imagine a world where science reporting was as sophisticated as sports reporting. Yes, imagine that! 7. What do you think the public perception is of a science communicator? A common answer to this question was that most public don’t know the difference between a scientist or a science communicator. Food for thought for all would be whether this perception needs to change. Surely it does?

8. How can we unify our definition of a science communicator and broadcast it? The final question also drew interesting responses. People questioned whether we needed to unify the definition or whether we just need to have more people doing scicomm diversely. My comment here would be that if we can demonstrate the breadth of scicomm activities, then we can provide an umbrella under which those activities sit (a form of definition). The responses to the previous questions indicates there is a large amount of scicomm that is done that probably isn’t recognised by mainstream media or the public.

 

I believe that we need to get better at communicating what science communication is. That doesn’t mean we all do the same things, but that we showcase just like art, how diverse scicomm actually is.

And the parting word on scicomm is “Stop, collaborate and listen”.

 

What a great first #SciCommNZ chat- I can’t wait for next month.

Vic Metcalf.

Check out a Storify of the chat.