SCANZ 2012 – Context is the Kingdom

By Michael Edmonds 28/02/2012

Dr Andi Horvath is a wonderful science communicator – passionate, articulate, funny (she does some great impressions including Julia Gillard). At SCANZ 2012 (Science Communicators Association of New Zealand conference 2012) Andi  is Senior Curator, Science Communicator at Victoria Museum in Melbourne  and at SCANZ she shared some of her knowledge about science communication through a keynote talk and a workshop.

Some key points from Andi’s talk include:

While CONTENT is King in Science, CONTEXT is the Kingdom. And it is the context which can be utilised in science communication.

Treat science communication as a privilege – you are taking up and minds and the time of those listening to you.

Never underestimate your audience/Respect your audience. Andi used the seven dwarves to enforce this. You may have a “sleepy” in the audience who looks like he has slept through your whole talk but who comes up with an insightful question at the end, or a “grumpy” who frowns all the way through but compliments you at the end.

Fake it til you make it – Andi apologised that this might sound very “American self help-like” (along with a great American accent) but that there is often truth behind such ideas. Becoming a good science communicator requires practice and confidence, the second of which can be “faked” to out you in the right frame of mind.

Science communicators need to have broad expertise (a point mentioned in other talks as well). So we need to pay attention to how science interacts with the economy and society and be aware of quotes from chief scientists and other experts.

Science is about HOW, but science communication is about WHY. While most scientists focus on how science works the general public is more interested in why science is carried out and what benefits it provides. Science communication needs to address this, i.e. it pulls science into an every day CONTEXT of why science is useful.

Andi made some other comparisons between science and science communication which I have summarised in the table below:

Institution Science

Science Communications

About us (scientists) About them (the public)
Translating science Connecting with people
PR speak Authentic voice
Risk averse Risk sensible

Many of these points also came up in other talks, which I will try and cover later on.

Andi also suggested that scientists should treat science communication as an ongoing experiment – testing what works and what doesn’t, continuously trying new approaches to improve the outcomes.

Other points made by Andi is that in science we need to make the messages memorable and that science communication is both educational and entertainment.

I didn’t take any notes during Andi’s workshop as she kept us too busy doing things. Andi ran us through some of her “Brain Gym for Scientists” exercises to, for example, write a limerick/Haiku/joke about the conference and come up with a picture which illustrates the conference. These exercises helped engage creativity, communication and group skills and were great fun under Andi’s guidance.

Andi regularly runs workshops for PhD students and academics on science communication in Australia. It would be great similar workshops could be organised in New Zealand. Something that SCANZ and other organisations might look at, perhaps in collaboration with the Science Communication degree at Otago University.

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