Monthly Archives: January 2013

Interview with @dr_leigh on Science Comms

I interviewed Dr Leigh, of #overlyhonestmethods fame, about why science communication is important in ‘The Looking Glass’.

You can also read a more in-depth, separate interview by Speaking of Science here.

We spoke to Dr Leigh, a post-doctoral research neuropharmacologist and author of the blog ‘neurodynamics’. Recently she came into the scientific public eye as the ‘founder’ of the scientific twitter craze ‘#overlyhonestmethods’ (some of our favourites can be found on the following pages).

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think that doing science is only part of the scientist’s job description. We absolutely have to talk about science outside of our professional circles and work to make science a part of the general public awareness. Often our work is funded publicly, so we can be reasonably expected to be able to describe the gains provided by the public’s investment. But making the public aware of our work may help us out in return- well-informed people who understand the benefit of science, who feel confident that science is making advancements in society, are more enthusiastic about continuing to support science! We exist in this mutually beneficial state that takes attention on our part to maintain publicly, so we can be reasonably expected to be able to describe the gains provided by the public’s investment. But making the public aware of our work may help us out in return- well-informed people who understand the benefit of science, who feel confident that science is making advancements in society, are more enthusiastic about continuing to support science! We exist in this mutually beneficial state that takes attention on our part to maintain.

What can people, especially students, do to get involved in science comms?

When you’re a student it’s a great time to get started communicating science with the world around you, but anyone can get involved. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be as simple as sharing your enthusiasm for science by pointing out a cool natural phenomenon/technology/medical practice/policy decision (and many more!) and the science behind it, or having an “elevator pitch” – a brief description of who you are and what you do that would make sense to anyone you may encounter while you’re out and about. Somewhat more formal ways might include sharing scientific stories or facts of interest on a blog, or on twitter, or even in your facebook feed. But really, I think your day to day communications and actions on their own go a long way to show that scientists are just regular folks with a cool job, that science is for everyone who’s interested, and there are some really great things we can do with science (and many more yet to be dreamed up).

How, in the new medium of blogging and twitter, has science comms changed, or how does it need to change?

My take is that scientists are more accessible than ever thanks to the internet. There are many of us out there participating in all levels of conversations. I think one thing that could change is that, like most people, we gravitate toward in-group conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think some well-placed explanations to keep the conversations accessible to someone without the highly specialized knowledge would keep the communications more open with the general public.

Interview with The Science Media Centre

I interviewed Claire Bithell, of the Science Media Centre, about Science comms and why they’re important for The Looking Glass, and posted the interview below:

What’s the best way to get into science writing?

Probably the best way is to just to start writing. Writing a blog, articles for your organisation or professional body or for a newsletter are all good ways to build up a body of work.

There are also some great competitions for science writers to enter, for example the one run by the Wellcome Trust and the Guardian. There are also a number of well-respected science communication courses, such as the one run by Imperial Collegeand many people would recommend doing a non-subject specific journalism or writing qualification.

What do you think makes a good science writer?

Though I would encourage everyone working in science to think about communication, remember that science writing is not the only way. UK science journalists are some of the best in the world and are incredibly skilled at communicating research. Working alongside these journalists I am constantly in awe of their ability to take a complex piece of research, quickly grasp its significance and limitations, and write a piece of copy that neither dumbs down the work or oversells its importance. These journalists will write multiple stories every day and are equally knowledgeable about space travel, climate change, mental health and infectious disease. They get this expertise by speaking to researchers who have a talent for communicating their area of work – the more experts they have access to the better they will be able to report an area.

And journalists may not know as many experts who work on mental health research as other areas they write about, such as cancer or infectious disease. Therefore, it is important that more mental health researchers come forward to be spokespeople for their area of research. The best way to do this is to contact either Louise Pratt or Seil Collins in the Institute of Psychiatry Press Office, and if you are interested in speaking to the national news media you can also work with the Science Media Centre.

Why you think science communication is important?

Science communication is essential if we want the public, funders and policy makers to appreciate the importance of research. Most science is funded using public money, so I feel there is a duty for researchers to speak to the public about their work. I have seen time and time again in my role as a press officer for science that those scientists who communicate their work are more likely to receive funding and they create a more supportive environment to carry out their research. I also think that many people don’t realise research offers an opportunity for improved understanding of mental illness and better treatments – researchers who communicate with the public have a chance to make this point.

With the nature of science communication changing in the current age of blogging, how do you think this affects the way you need to communicate and the people you are reaching?

Science communication is changing rapidly as a result of new media. Science communicators are using blogs, twitter, podcasts and other methods to reach new and existing audiences. That said, if you want to reach a really wide audience that may not have a special interest in science, traditional media often remains the best tool.

Interview with ABSW

I interviewed the Association of British Science Writers about the different aspects of being a science writer for ‘The Looking Glass’, and reproduced the interview below:

What’s the best way to get into science writing?

There are of course many formal degrees and training courses and these have proved really useful for some seeking work in science communication more broadly and science journalism more specifically.   However, the best way to get into science writing, regardless of whether you are on a course or not, is just ‘do it’.  The more you write the quicker you’ll find your voice and get used to the habit of writing.  Reading others work from a whole host of sources and analysing what it is that you like about your favourite writers is also invaluable in giving you ideas for stories and styles of writing.

Do you have any advice for budding science writers?

Speak to as many science writers as you can – many are on social media (especially Twitter) or you can interact with them in blog comments. It’s a friendly community and everyone’s willing to offer advice – make contacts where you can – you never know when they’ll be useful.

Exploit all networking events to their full and just keep pitching your ideas.  See this article on how not to pitch as it is a skill in itself!  http://www.theopennotebook.com/2012/01/04/how-not-to-pitch/

What are the pros and cons of a job in science writing?

The pros of the job are that you’ll meet brilliantly interesting people, go to places you’d never normally get access to and you’ll learn a lot about whatever you’re writing about. The cons are it’s not necessarily that well paid, getting work is tough (although this applies more to journalism than the broader field of science writing), also it’s very easy to be very bad!

Why you think science communication is important?

It might be a cliché, but science really is a part of almost everything and it is for everyone. To be able to bring it to people and overcome their ‘oh it’s too hard’ preconceptions is a really noble calling. If you are a fan of what thinking scientifically has achieved and what it can continue to do for our society, then you’ll no doubt enjoy making science part of the national conversation, a part of everyday culture.

One important point to make here though is the clear difference between science communication and science journalism. One is engaging the public with science, which requires making it interesting and bringing it to life in a different way to journalism, which will necessarily need to take a more critical look at science.  Of course, science communication can look critically at science and scientists, and journalism can engage the public, but at a very basic level you need to be aware of the distinction.   As has been said many times, journalists should not be ‘cheerleaders’ for science.

In the changing nature of science communication in the current age of blogging, how do you think this affects the way you need to communicate and the people you are reaching?

The web has been a great democratic leveller and anyone can now contact anyone else, so if you’re a good writer with flair and a passion for the subject, you can progress your career more easily than in the past when there were perhaps more barriers.  The interactive and immediate nature of online communication also keeps people on their toes, if you make a mistake anyone can and probably will call you out on it online.  In terms of engagement, the web has really facilitated dialogue; we’re now finally seeing the public as people whose respect and interest we have to earn.

In terms of the actual job though the medium may have changed and you may reach more people via the internet than a printed product, but it doesn’t change how you “do” your story.

So what do you think about blogging?

Anyone can start a blog and get practising.  There really is no excuse. However, as a word of caution, the blogosphere can be a bit of an echo chamber you do need to make sure you are adding something to what others are saying, [be clear] of your audience [and] who your blog is aimed at.

Career Focus: Science Communication

I’ve recently written an article for the new, student-led magazine produced at the Institute of Psychiatry ‘The Looking Glass’. To view the full publication click here.

I’ve also reproduced the article below:

 

As a scientific institute it is important for those of us at the IoP to keep communicating up-to-date findings to a wider audience than just the recipients of relevant academic journals. In the field of psychiatry this is especially important, as ours is an area of research that the general public tend to shy away from, with social stigma still clouding peoples understanding of common mental illnesses. So, to help get the word out we need to encourage a new generation of science communicators, but how do we go about doing this?

Science communication is not simply reporting your data to ‘Nature’ (if you’re lucky!) then sitting back and feeling satisfied that people have access to your research. Nor is it copying said report into a blog or sending it to New Scientist. Being a good science communicator is having the ability to communicate important information to the general public in a manner that makes it accessible and understandable to the lay person. We spoke to Claire Bithell, Press Officer for the Science Media Centre, who told us that a good science writer is ‘someone who is curious about science, who has a talent for explaining complex ideas in simple terms. They need not be an expert in the area they are writing about, and in fact to be a good science writer you need to be able to quickly absorb new information and gain insight into new areas.’

The Association of British Science Writers added that a science writer is someone with ‘a passion for telling a good story, an interest in other people, and being able to see things from the perspective of your audience.  It’s not just about being a good writer or about the science it’s about being able to spot what makes a good story, and pin pointing why someone else should care about it.’

I’ll never forget my PhD interview here at the IoP. After all the standard questions about my educational background and research interests I was asked to expand on the interest in science communication that I had expressed in my cover letter. I eagerly started gushing about how important it was to make science accessible to the general public, whilst also making it exciting, and dropped in a few of my favourite writers and publications. However, when asked to talk about a recent piece of science communication I enjoyed reading, I got the classic interview brain freeze. All the exciting articles I had read in the week leading up to my interview had completely disappeared. Horrifically, I was left with just one word…‘Gonorrhoea’. Even worse, as I launched into this discussion of an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhoea to a panel of neuroscience and psychology experts, I happened to let slip that it was written in the Metro. Their faces dropped. However, all was not lost. I managed to pull them back on to my side by explaining that, though I don’t read the Metro primarily for its scientific acclaim, the piece had managed to explain what could be a very confusing scientific concept of evolving bacteria into an interesting snippet of science, suitable for the lay reader. Safe to say, their faces had returned to much more encouraging expressions by the end of my spiel, and with a nod of approval the conversation moved to safer topics. Phew!

Amusing anecdote aside, this article was the first to show me that you don’t have to be published in New Scientist to be an accomplished science writer. The aim is to make your points accessible to the non-scientific audience, which is exactly what this author did.

In an ever changing web-based environment, the current age of blogging has revolutionised how we are able to share our thoughts and report on new and exciting scientific concepts, as well as increased our reach to the non-scientist audience. For this reason the quality of science writing and the science journalists entering the field needs keep up with these developments.

A final word of advice from the ABSW: ‘don’t narrow your job search to just journalism. There’s a lot more to science writing than just journalism. Plenty of good science writing goes on in organisations, press offices and other places.’

When we spoke to some experts and big names in the field about how to get started, an overwhelming majority recommend you just ‘start writing’. It’s that simple. If you want to find out a bit more about how to get into science writing, what it’s like working in the field, and how the experts think it’s changing, have a look at our interviews in the following pages.

This weeks best twitter trend has to be the sci-humour #overlyhonestmethods. It made my Tuesday afternoon…and made me feel better about my less-than-perfect methodologies!