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.

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