Last week I attended a seminar about new advances in clinical trials for cancer treatments. The seminar started off with one of the research leads from the University of Liverpool clinical trials research center introducing the topic and the upcoming speakers. The introduction emphasized the importance of research with impact and that knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone isn’t useful. Based on the number of problems that scientific research is needed to solve, the organizer reasoned, we simply can’t do research that doesn’t have a direct application.
I didn’t fully disagree with the cancer research group lead, but his statement did catch me off-guard. There’s certainly a lot of research that seems to go nowhere or that leaves us asking “Why did tax money go to this study?” Having a vision of what the research can lead to is a way to ensure that the work we do as researchers has meaning. But at the same time, it’s unfair to say that knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn’t necessarily useful.
This also presents a challenge for science communication, since one of the ways that we engage with an audience is to try to connect them to a story by sharing its impact. The lack of an immediate impact is not necessarily a failure of science, but it is a potential barrier for effective science communication. Not everything that scientists do will be relevant, interesting, or meaningful for the everyday person—but does that mean we can’t communicate this kind of science effectively?
The comments made at the seminar came at a time when I was halfway through reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I found myself deeply intrigued by Robert Pirsig’s discussion on the infinite nature of hypothesis testing. Will science inevitably continue to answer one hypothesis at a time only to have five more hypotheses appear once that one has been addressed? Will we ever have data that’s solid enough to support or refute a hypothesis, or will there always be an infinite number of counter-explanations for a given observation?
Pirsig’s book wasn’t what exactly light evening reading, and maybe not the way to get people interested in science, but I did enjoy his discussions and spend some time pondering both his book and one of my previous posts on the philosophical foundation of scientific research. PhD students and early career researchers know all too well how new results often lead us to more burning questions as opposed to solid answers. As scientists, we slowly work towards conclusions about how the world works and gain, piece-by-piece, a better understanding of our world.
But the progress of science isn’t always as tedious as it may feel when we’re in the middle of it. My own enthusiasm for science was ignited last week with the news from NASA about the TRAPPIST-1 system. And with global threats like climate change, freak asteroids, and American politics, it seems like a good time to get excited about potentially habitable planets that are 40 light years away!
NASA news is broadly exciting for many of us, but it’s also the type of news that reflects this idea that not all science will impact our day-to-day lives. This work is science for the sake of science, for a better understanding of our universe, and quite unlikely to directly affect anyone in this lifetime. It’s the kind of story that makes for great science news, but doesn’t necessarily answer the question of “Why should I care about science?” for people who are living their own lives and who aren’t necessarily interested in the mysteries of the universe.
Two weeks ago I talked about the upcoming March for Science and the goal of getting people on the side of science. While engagement is essential for the future of science, we should also recognize that not everyone will be as enthusiastic about science as we are. A recent survey from voters in the 2016 election asked people what they consider “very important” for their voting decisions. While the economy and terrorism are broadly important to most voters, only 52% of voters surveyed considered the environment influential in their voting decision.
It sounds like an uphill battle at first, but with these things in mind we can come up with a strategy for the future of science communication:
- Part of our message needs to reflect science as a methodology, not just a field of study. To improve science literacy, we can’t simply report more scientific discoveries but should instead emphasize the scientific discovery and hypothesis validation process.
- We should write science communication stories as if we were journalists and not public relations officers. Journalists write stories that discuss a topic from as many sides as possible. If you’re promoting science as a means of reaching a universal truth, you should present the story in a way that allows people to draw their own conclusions or alternative hypothesis about a topic’s worth.
- We should not be shy about the fact that not all research will be directly relevant for people’s lives. We can emphasize that scientists may need to ask “How does this work?” while holding back on the inevitable question of “Why should I care?” right away.
- Scientists and science communicators can also think about how they can meet people where they are. As an example, an EPA scientist from Louisiana recently attended a town hall meeting, where her statements were met with enthusiastic support. People who are already interested in science might meet us on twitter, come to our seminars, or meet us at a museum, but what about people who might not have a weekend trip to the Natural history museum on the top of their to do list? You can also think about what science stories you connect with: Do you like all fields of science? What drives your interest in a topic? Why do you click on a news headline?
There are numerous topics in science and research that are relevant for people who aren’t scientists, ranging from cancer drug trials to global warming. The stories we tell about these topics will make their strongest impacts when they are focused on the impacts to people over the science itself. But as scientists, we shouldn’t neglect the utility of knowledge for the sake of knowledge or consider people as scientifically illiterate/unengaged just because they don’t share the same curiosities as we do.
Part of the goal of science communication can be in sharing science for what it is: as a way of reaching the truth that can be slow, monotonous, and mysterious—but it’s a way that we can reach incredible findings that have impact beyond our own lives. As the saying goes: sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
Every time I opened Google News last month, I hesitated with bated breath before scrolling down to the ‘Science’ section. I found myself too nervous to read whatever shocking policy changes would be waiting for me there. Even a month after the inauguration, I and many other scientists continue to wonder what the next four years will have in store. Everything related to science in the US, from basic research funding to environmental policy changes, feels like it’s at the cusp of challenging days ahead.
I empathize with the scientists who are silenced and for my friends and colleagues who work at government institutions, wondering how their jobs will be affected. I cheer on the rogue twitter accounts (my personal favorite being the tongue-in-cheek @MordorNPS) and I started preparing letters to the members of congress who are proposing bills that would damage the integrity of environmental regulations. But despite my empathy with the plight of government researchers and concerns for what an “alternative facts” administration will do over the next four years, I am hesitant to fully support the concept of a March for Science. I am concerned that the march will further polarize the dialogue at the interface of science and politics instead of harmonizing science communication and public outreach.
In the US, scientists are overwhelmingly liberal, with 55% identifying as Democratic, 32% Independent, and only 6% as Republican. In contrast, scientific literacy, or illiteracy, is less partisan—and it’s incorrect to label one party as ‘anti-science’ over another. Scientists may tend to picture concepts such as not believing in global warming or evolution as primarily conservative viewpoints. But while 50% of conservatives surveyed said that they thought the earth was only 10,000 years old, so did 33% of liberals. Recent concerns about how Trump’s comments could potentially fuel the anti-vaccine movement didn’t mention the fact that a higher percentage of Democrats believe that vaccines are not safe.
While there are extremely vocal Conservative opponents of ideas like climate change and evolution, there is a general understanding and support for the science underpinning climate change among representatives of the Republican Party. Recent news articles have highlighted bills put forth by freshmen Republican representatives to disband the US EPA, but at the same time other Republicans are working on a national carbon tax to address climate change. This effort is supported by senior Republicans who said that the “mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore”. The difference between the two parties is not necessarily a belief in the science but in how that information is used to shape policies, and Republicans will generally advocate for less restrictive and more open market policies to approach these problems.
Yes, there are vocal opponents of climate change science, and yes, the current administration has already done numerous things to warrant mistrust from scientists—but to seemingly discredit an entire party holding a majority position of the federal legislature is not a recipe for making progress. If the March for Science is going to make strides in its goal of sharing clear, non-partisan messages, it will take more than a single act of demonstration against the current administration.
Looking beyond this current administration, it’s not a solid long-term strategy for scientists to be primarily aligned with only one side of the political spectrum. In American politics, one party is never in power for long, and the office of the President tends to alternate back and forth between red and blue (and the same trend follows for the House and Senate). This pendulum swing is the natural ebb and flow of political leanings in America, and makes Trump’s election win look like it was somewhat inevitable.
Scientists can envision a Democratic presidential victory in 2020 as a stepping stone for progress in science. But what about future elections, from 2024 and beyond? Given the number of problems that need solid scientific solutions, from climate change to antibiotic resistance to a comet crashing into planet earth, can scientists afford to only rely on 4-8 year cycles?
In our post two weeks ago, we discussed the role that Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring had in bringing about significant changes and improvements to environmental protection in the US during the 1960’s. In response to this movement and to help mediate the laws that were being drawn up by separate states and cities, Republican President Richard Nixon founded the US EPA in 1970. The US EPA continues to set national guidelines as well as monitors and enforces those laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
While Nixon won’t go down as one of America’s most popular presidents, his actions and those of other Republicans in power demonstrate that the GOP is historically not an anti-science group. President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in setting up the US Food and Drug Administration, set up five National Parks and numerous National monuments, and went on a few scientific explorations of his own. Senator Barry Goldwater, also a republican, was an advocate for environmental protection efforts in the 1960’s, saying:
While I am a great believer in the free competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment. To this end, it is my belief that when pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action against important segments of our national economy.”
Science is not inherently bipartisan, but scientists, and the issues that they tackle, do have political biases. A danger of a politically-charged event like the March for Science is that it may undermine the public’s perception of a scientist as being a politically unbiased person.
The way in which we choose to stand up for our work as scientists has to go beyond the March for Science. It requires us to develop a clear message of how science can provide support or guidance on the policies our representatives adopt on. Regardless of who is in charge, scientists should always advocate the utility of science and to help enable government policies founded on science, not on political biases. After the march, scientists can work towards this objective by sharing their thoughts and concerns directly with legislators. We should support our representatives who are working on legislation to support clean air and water policies and bills that provide protection for government scientists.
The April 22nd march is a way for scientists to take a stand against the injustices inflicted by the current administration. It’s important that scientists make their voices heard, but we as scientists also need to make sure that the message we are sharing is a clear one: Scientists and researchers are here to help make our world a better place, and we stand beside everyone, in solidarity, for a better tomorrow.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s happy to see that 2016 is finally coming to a close. In a year of brutal rhetoric and political firestorms, it’s a good time of year to be able to hang up our hats, head home to see family and friends, and avoid talking about politics, science, and everything in between. At the same time, 2017 year is a time for New Year’s resolutions and a chance to make things better than they were the year before. In this last post in our science writing and journalism series, we’d like to encourage our readers to add yet another goal to their resolution check-list: to act as a science communicator and citizen science journalist!
2016 experienced how powerful the role social media holds in shaping and sharing people’s opinions. In particular, there are frequent discussions on the role of social media in the democratic events of 2016, namely Brexit and the US presidential election, but also now the Philippines presidential election. These events demonstrated the power of social media to disseminate ‘news’, whether or not that news was true.
At the same time, blogs, tweets, and personal websites are powerful tools that can enable all of us to become our own type of journalist. Scientists can benefit from understanding journalism and can use the tools and tricks of this trade to create their own impactful yet accurate articles about science and news. Journalism skills include knowing where you find information as well as how you report it. As a scientist you’ll already have a lot of experience in finding out things, be it from experiments or literature searches, but how can we better report the facts into a truth-telling story?
1. Your first sentence
A good news article starts with a strong introductory sentence. In the online Coursera MOOC (link) we were given an exercise on writing the introductory sentence, which in journalism is known as the lead. The lead gives all of the important details of the story in a clear and non-judgmental manner (with no interpretations on the content that are being presented). Your goal in this first sentence should be to answer as many of the key questions of journalism (who, what, why, where, when, and how) in a 25-30 word easy-to-read sentence. Here’s a few examples from the CNN and BBC front pages today (5 Dec):
“Ben Carson will be nominated as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Trump transition team announced Monday.” 23 words
“Outgoing Italian PM Matteo Renzi has met the country's president following a heavy defeat in a constitutional referendum on Sunday.” 20 words
The very first sentence keeps things simple and uses the next paragraph to fill in the background information tied to the lead. It may feel strange to write a sentence this way, but picture yourself reading an article about something you’ve clicked on during your lunch break. How quickly do you decide if something is interesting to read or not? When you’re in a rush and there’s more and more articles for you read, in general you make that decision rather quickly.
2. The inverted pyramid
An inverted pyramid is the analogy used to describe the organization of the information in a news article. You start with the most news-worthy facts and fill in details and other, less-relevant or less-exciting facts later on. If your goal is to convey new information, following this structure provides your audience with the most important information up-front. As with the first sentence, you might decide while reading an article that it’s not of interest or it’s too boring quite early on, so using a structure where the most important and interesting information comes first can help keep someone’s attention for longer. As you write, introduce new facts in the order that your reader would want to know them. A good question to start with is “What does this latest research finding/piece of information mean for them?”
When writing your story, be sure to answer the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How of the story you’re trying to tell. Before you start writing your article, write down the answers to the 5 W’s and the 1 H. This will help you structure both your first introductory sentence as well as the outline of the write-up. Does a particular aspect of the story resonate more strongly, such as a connection to their health or their daily decision-making? Be thematic when necessary and remember that your audience will have different interests and connections based on who they are.
Answering why will always be the most difficult. So, if you have an answer, be sure to put it front and center. This is also a great strategy for writing a grant application, where your audience (the reviewers) will want to know precisely who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it (and why it matters), where it will have an impact, when it will be finished, and how it will all come together into a cohesive and successful project. So even if news articles or science writing isn’t your thing, the inverted pyramid strategy can still come in handy!
3. KISS (keep it simple, scientists)
Journalistic writing aims to be simple, clear, specific, and engaging—and this is much harder to write than it is to read. Especially when your experience so far has primarily focused on writing like a scientist, where the audience is primarily other researchers with science degrees, translating complex ideas into something that’s readable at a 4th grade level is a challenge. Some basic rules include:
- use everyday words instead of complex ones (‘improve’ instead of ‘ameliorate’)
- use verbs and the active voice (like ‘analyze’ and ‘selected’) instead of abstract statements (‘has been’ or ‘was chosen’)
Thankfully there are a lot of online tools for checking the readability of your work, including the Hemingway App as well as an integrated review system within Wordpress. It will take you more than a few iterations to simplify your writing, but you can rely on these tools or other peer reviews from friends who don’t have a scientific background to give you feedback on the readability of your work. Improving your writing comes with practice and in learning first-hand how you can re-structure and re-word your sentences to make your ideas more active.
4. Be prepared
As we’ve said many times before, background reading and having a thorough understanding about something is crucial before you can write about it. So read, read, and then read some more before you even think about what you’ll say.
If your article will include an interview or requesting a statement from another person, be prepared before you meet with them by reading their work and making a plan of what must be answered during your time with them. Be sure to get some basic information from them (their role in the study/in the field, what their background is) and to get as many answers to the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How as you can. Write out topic headings rather than full questions, and put them at ease by adopting similar body language and style in order to minimize any communication barriers. My favorite interview advice from Coursera was to ask stupid questions and to not be afraid to sound like you don’t know something. The measure of success in an interview isn’t how you feel but what material you get out of it. In other words: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
When interviewing others, especially scientists whose work might not be published yet, be clear at the beginning of your meeting at what level of attribution you’ll be using. If the discussion is on the record then you’ll need to attribute any statements and facts to the person and paper (if available). If things are on background, you won’t be able to say from whom you got the statement/information from, and anything off the record cannot be published or attributed. You’ll likely not encounter a situation where statements made will be off the record, but if a fellow scientist shares something with you that they don’t want to be made public, it’s up to you to respect their privacy. This is also a good concept to know about for anyone still working as an early career researcher—at some point you might be interviewed by a journalist, and talking about something not yet published can end you up in a difficult situation if the findings come out in a newspaper before a journal article.
Even if you don’t aspire to be a prize-winning, world-renowned journalist, you can still use this skillset to enhance the impact of your science writing. Whether it’s a manuscript for your peers or a written post about your research for an institute outreach activity, becoming a citizen science journalist can help bridge the gap between the news we read and the science we do on a daily basis. In this day and age of blogging, social media, and hourly news updates, it’s possible for any of us to make an impact with our words—impact that we can use to make 2017 a better year than the one before.
As a scientist and a soon-to-be citizen journalist, each story you craft has to be more than a series of facts but also an engaging and accurate depiction of the truth. Your source of information should always include referenced facts and figures, but also including first-person accounts from scientists you meet at conferences, seminars, or at a local pub can add depth to your writing. Perspectives and insights gained from interviews are great for empowering you to tell your story and can help drive important research questions. And just like the journalist whose task it is to filter out someone’s opinion from a bona fide fact, so too must scientists learn how to talk to people in order to learn the facts and perspectives that are relevant for telling a science story.
I had the opportunity to interview four researchers from our institute this summer and was able to see the power of interviewing with and listening to researchers from fields other than my own. Talking to someone in an interview format is a terrifying prospect, but by approaching the conversation with an open and curious mind, I found that I learned more from the experience than the simple facts and figures I took home with me. In a post-truth world, the connections we make with people as we search for truth and understanding will continue to become as important as the data and the figures that we make to tell our story.
But let’s start out simple: What is an interview? Simply put, an interview is an opportunity to ask specific questions and receive answers, with the primary purpose being to get quotes, facts, insights, and to build a relationship with your interviewee. An interview is more formal than a casual conversation over coffee, just like how a job interview is more formalized than talking to someone at a conference about a job at their company. An interviewee is put on the spot to answer specific questions, and an interviewer is tasked with asking good questions, listening to responses, and collecting everything for analysis at a later date. It’s an intense process on both sides, and one that involves more than a simple series of questions and answers.
In the world of journalism, there are two types of interview styles. In a collaborative interview, your subject is willing to or very keen on telling a story. Your aim and theirs are the same: you both want to convey facts to the public and share their story for a specific purpose, such as making an audience more aware of a topic or sharing a new research finding. This is the most common type of interview you’ll be doing as a science communicator/citizen science journalist. Alternatively, an adversarial interview is when the interviewee is held to account on a topic while the subject is challenged to provide answers on something he or she might not want to answer. Perhaps if you stray into a controversial topic about someone’s research you might engage in this type of interviewing style, but for the most part working with other scientists there’s no need to put them in the hot seat.
There are also different types of questions you can ask at an interview. Open questions such as How does PCR work? or Why is your research important? are questions that put the power in the hands of the subject. These types of questions allow you to find out what the subject knows in a more open manner, especially related to things you don’t have any prior knowledge about. The disadvantage here is that it can allow your subject to ramble on about something beyond relevancy—leaving you to either intervene or to let them carry on while taking time from other questions.
Closed questions such as Did the new experiment work? or Were the findings statistically significant? can be answered very simply with a yes/no/short explanation, but the subject can also expand upon the answer if they feel like adding more. Closed questions give the interviewer the control and can enable you to focus on a topic and bring a discussion to a point, but it also limits what you hear—with these types of questions, you can’t find additional answers beyond what you’re asking or what you know about already.
No questions are an interesting approach I learned about in the citizen journalism Coursera course. It’s quite literally a question that’s actually a statement (I really don’t see the importance of that), and sometimes it’s not anything more than a Really?, Honestly?, or even just a period of silence from you. It can open up the subject for a reply, as people tend to want to fill the silence. It’s a way to get people to say things without a specific question preceding it. If you’re doing a collaborative interview you likely won’t need these types of approaches, but if you do run into someone that’s not providing a lot of feedback, this is one way to go about getting answers.
Interviewing as a journalist also means adhering to a code of ethics regarding consent and deception. Rules will vary internationally but in general they require you to identify yourself and your employer before an interview, to use fair and honest ways of obtaining materials for a story, and to never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Scientists working on science writing and communication activities should also strive to adhere to similar types of guidelines: be upfront about who you are and the purpose of your work, the intended output/audience, and be cautious when trying to sell a “breaking story” on research that hasn’t been published yet.
The formal definition of deception is to make people believe what we ourselves do not. This involves nefarious ways of developing empathy with a subject that are done under a false pretense or changing the story once new facts come in without your subject being on board. The rules on deception and entrapment are complicated for journalism, but as with the rule above: be clear about what you’re doing and be honest about what your goals are.
Prior consent means obtaining permission from a subject to interview them, including any media materials (like photos or videos) that you’ll collect for your story. Your University or institute might already have rules in place for using a picture or a video of someone on a blog or a news story that you’ll post on a Twitter account, so be sure to check with your publications office or a press officer before publishing any media online for your organization. This is especially true if you’re working with minors—get in contact with the appropriate press contacts before including any quotes or photographs of younger students, and do your homework before the event so you can collect any required permission from parents as needed.
Setting up an interview might seem too formal or unnecessary, but whether you’re a writer, a scientist, or just want to learn something from someone, an interview can be a great opportunity to gain information beyond the scope of a normal conversation. People do answer questions differently when in an interview setting, just as those of you who have applied for a job know that being put on the spot is different than talking about your life’s goals over a cup of coffee. Envision the interview with purpose, as a way to get information, insights, and also to build a relationship with another person. As we previously discussed in our networking post, building a professional relationship is crucial for progressing in your career. Interviews, and the information you’ll gain from them, can help you get there and can help you tell a story using more than just facts and figures.
The term “post-truth” was recently named Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. This was in part thanks to the political movements fueled by strong emotions and sentiments, most notably in the UK and the US, but also possibly across Europe as many countries will face their own upcoming elections early in 2017. “Post-truth” isn’t a new concept, as authors and journalists in 2004 highlighted the actions of the Bush administration in a post-9/11 America. Just as last week we started our series with an overview of journalism, this week we’ll start by answering a simple question, given the fiery discussions surrounding the word truth: What is truth, anyways?
In journalism, truth is defined as the best obtainable version of the facts available at a given time, where facts must be consistent with the material available at that point in time. True statements should be based on facts and substantive claims, with verification and double-checking of facts a crucial step of telling any story. As the news-writing adage goes (and still stuck in my head from high school journalism class almost fifteen years ago now), “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” But from this perspective, truth is also changeable. Truth is based on the knowledge you have at the time, and truth can change when new material comes to light.
Scientists have a similar means of coming to the truth. We use the scientific method to conduct experiments and generate data that tells us if our idea of how the world works could be possible or not. If it’s not possible, we move on to another hypothesis; if we’re right, we continue to blaze down that trail to learn more about the system we’re studying. And like the journalistic definition of truth, scientific truth is also changeable. We have to shift our idea of how things work if enough support comes in that refutes our original hypothesis or theory. In reality, good science and good journalism is all conducted in a “post-truth” manner, in the sense that the fields must embrace the best version of truth at the time while discarding any inconsistent theories they encounter as they progress through a story or through a series of experiments.
Unlike scientists who tell stories with data, journalists have to retrieve information leading to the truth in other ways. This can include attending events such as press conferences or sporting competitions or by reading official documents, papers, or books. Journalists also rely on other people to help provide stories and perspectives, which generally involves interviewing and cross-checking against other sources to provide support for statements (more on interviews in next week’s post). Truth-finding for journalists involves 1) gathering information and views/perspectives, 2) checking if statements can be supported by facts, 3) evaluating the relevance of new facts for telling a story, 4) helping the audience know what the truth means, and 5) telling the story accurately and clearly.
In order to tell the truth in an effective way, a journalist must be open-minded, especially when it comes to evaluating the relevance of facts for a story. Part of being involved in a post-truth world comes from cherry-picking results or statements that fulfill a central idea that we have already. Science is also guilty of cherry-picking facts in order to tell a story from a specific perspective, so making active considerations for any biases is crucial for telling any story, be it for news or for science. News also must be engaging; it can’t simply be presented as a list of facts. You have to explain the context, the meaning, and the significance. Scientists should also recognize that data and scientific evidence is more effective when provided within context, as tables and bar charts will only get you so far when trying to convince someone that your version of the truth is the best one out there.
While telling a story that’s a reflection of the truth, it’s crucial for both scientists and journalists to be impartial about the subject at hand. A writer (or scientist) is unbiased when he or she does not take sides when both researching and presenting new material and when the results of the work are a detached assessment of the facts uncovered. Achieving impartiality generally involves working towards the following goals: 1) accuracy, 2) fairness (presenting the subject in a way that deals with it proportionately), 3) balance (rather than presenting two sides equally, balance should be obtained by weighting things by the amount of evidence), 4) having no conflict of interest in the outcome of the story, 5) being open minded, and 6) telling the story with appropriate context.
We might envision journalists as being pressured to sell a story or to skew the facts that make a news piece more click-worthy, but can scientists say that they aren’t guilty of the same? Do we not also have our own favorite proteins or algorithms that we want to see succeed and become crucial pieces of some large scientific puzzle? Professional scientists should also recognize the importance of impartiality in doing good science and to avoid the pitfalls of becoming too enamored with a favorite technique, protein, or algorithm.
Our words and our papers have power to them, regardless of the impact factor of the journal or how many citations we get. Our work will inevitably be built upon by someone else, and our words that we use to tell our scientific stories should reflect our work in an accurate way. Every word we use contributes to the picture and supports our ideas—and being impartial also means we should choose our words accurately and fairly, words which are congruent with what we’re actually showing. In a “post-truth” world, it is our duty as scientists to strive for a truth that is not comprised but rather enhanced by our desire to share our science.
Next week in our series, we’ll discuss interviewing and working with other people to get facts—another step towards becoming a citizen science journalist. Until then, only 7 days left of #AcWriMo!!
I have a bad habit of overextending myself. It’s a habit that rears its head in many ways, from reading days where I end up printing more interesting papers than I actually read or opening tabs from Wikipedia that expand through the complete realm of time and space. To ensure that I had more than enough to do this autumn, I enrolled in an online journalism course available on Coursera. The six week course satisfied my goal of learning something new about a field that I’ve become more interested in lately, a chance to explore the underlying methods and philosophies behind something that people interact with everyday. Modern journalism has seen some controversy lately, especially in the wake of recent events leading up to Brexit and the US Presidential election.
This week has seen a lot of fall-out about the US election results. Everything from criticizing Facebook for not sifting out the false news from the real or creating a world of biased newsfeeds, as well as the endless spins on candidate statements or poll results that you could possibly imagine. But we don’t just see this in political news, and science is not immune to the shifting tides of news and the media. Take dietary guidelines, for example: Eggs were at one pointed considered unhealthy, but now they’re good for us. A beer a day can apparently prevent stroke and heart disease but low to moderate amounts of alcohol consumption causes several types of cancer. And who even knows what red wine is really doing.
As scientists we can easily evaluate and even criticize the bad science that goes viral or the poor reporting of a new research paper. But as a journalist, would you have the same level of discernment when readying a story for rapid publication? What can scientists learn from journalism in terms of making our stories clear accurate yet also gripping and impactful in a news-worthy way?
This week we’ll be introducing some basic concepts of journalism to give you a break from your paper writing during #AcWriMo. Next week we’ll talk about interviews and storytelling, and in the final week of November we’ll discuss how you can become an engaged citizen science journalist on your own. But first, the basics: what is journalism and who are journalists?*
*Note: This information is a summary of the excellent online course, “Journalism skills for engaged citizens”, by the University of Melborne. This course was really great, so be sure to check out Coursera and keep an eye out for the next session if you’re interested!
Journalism and journalists have a primary obligation to the truth. Good journalism is not marketing and it’s not personal opinion: it should be the most accurate depiction of a story based on the journalist’s understanding of the facts. In this sense, journalistic truth is the process of assembling and verifying facts, namely the facts which provide the most accurate depiction of truth at the time that the article is written. Sound familiar? In principal, the foundations of science and of journalism are more similar than not. The scientific method is also objective and one which uses experiments and hypotheses to come to an answer about how the world works, given the knowledge that we have at this stage in time. Ideas and theories change when we get new data, just as a story evolves when new angles or facts come in. Another important similarity to remember is that while the methods of both journalism and science are objective, journalists and scientists are not--we are all humans and make mistakes or can be biased to seeing things in a particular way. That being said, both fields also have guidelines and support for ensuring that objectivity and truth is the focus of the story or the research.
Journalism is storytelling with purpose. A news story must be interesting and relevant to an audience, which is also one reason why stories can become over-sensationalized or hyperbolized. While the audience is the one who decides if a story is relevant or exciting for them, it’s the role of the journalist to both find a story that will attract audience interest and to tell that story in a way that’s accurate. News is fundamentally something that people don’t know already and will also find interesting. News-worthy stories generally have a number of key ‘values’. The primary values include magnitude (the number affected/size of the event), negativity (bad news, conflict, or disruption tend to feel more news-worthy than good stories), and proximity (if the affected group is local or has some cultural/emotional empathy or connection). Secondary values include recency, prominence of the parties involved, stories that discuss emotion or the human condition (known as pathos), shock/surprise of the story, clarity (simple > complex), and the ability of the story to challenge what is already known.
Sound familiar? Probably not as much as the first point. In science, we tell our stories very objectively, much in how we also find out the story in the first place. When we write a manuscript we aren’t trying to over-sell our story or convince our audience of the newsworthy-ness of our article. We let the data speak for itself, in part because we are talking to other scientists and in part because that’s how science is typically done. Scientists tend to think that their own problems are interesting simply because they are interesting—we are engrossed with our projects and our data, with many of us believing that the publication in of itself is sufficient to gain further interest without the need for further reporting or promotion. Science communication efforts are focused on bridging this gap between science and the public in part by sharing science in forums beyond research journals and conferences. But scientists and science communicators also need to recognize that science communication is more than just telling the stories: if the work doesn’t feel close, relevant, big, or clear, it won’t resonate with an audience. People may never care about our work if it doesn’t connect to them in some convincing way.
Journalists put the biggest ideas first. Scientists and journalists present ideas very differently, which can explain in part why some stories seem to over-hype the results of research studies. In a research article, the long-term goals or broader impacts may make an appearance as a bit of text in an abstract or a discussion, and these may only have a secondary application in the overall findings of the paper. For example, a paper on the genetic regulations of prostate cancer might mention curing cancer as one of the aims of the research, but no cancer will be directly cured from the findings of the paper itself. An article popped up on my newsfeed several weeks about with an alarming headline connecting environmental pollutants in car exhaust to Alzheimer’s. While the paper does demonstrate a correlation between magnetite levels (evaluated in the brains of patients from urban areas in Mexico and Manchester, UK) with incidence of Alzheimer’s, the results were still only correlative, and with no non-urban control samples to compare these findings against.
The headline wasn’t a complete stretch, but also wasn’t exactly what the paper showed: you didn’t hear about the limitations of the article until you dug further into the text, after the important journalistic point of the connection between environmental nanoparticles and brain diseases. A scientist may put out a press release on findings from a research paper which from their perspective accurately separates the “big picture maybe” from the details and the facts presented in the paper itself. But a journalist might catch on to the big picture maybe as the most important part of the story—the one that will connect to readers more than the detailed methods and the relevance of the error bars. In this sense, understanding how stories are structured from a journalists’ perspective can help scientist understand that reporting casualties can arise not from fear-mongering or bad intentions but simply from looking at the parts of a paper or a press release and interpreting a big picture/long-term maybe as an immediate truth. In our last post of this series we’ll go into detail about news story structure and how to take this into account when working to become a better science communicator.
Journalism stands up to the principle that people have a right to information. In addition to the duty of truth telling, journalists also have their primary loyalty in informing citizens while “describing society to itself”. Journalists, editors, and news organizations undoubtedly have their own perspectives and bias, but they are also held accountable to their duty towards the public. Here we can envision a parallel between scientists and journalists: even in our own careers and interests, scientists have a duty to do good science and to ensure that work done with tax-payer dollars is of high-quality and open to scrutiny by others.
But there are also some striking differences in this regard. While science is becoming more open, there is still a tendency to keep data and information within a research community and to focus on the peers who judge our work and its quality instead of members the public. Good journalism is meant to provide a map that enables people to navigate society on their own, when provided with the truth and the facts in a clear and accurate way. Does good science do the same? Do scientists actively help the world reflect on where it came from, what it is, and where it’s going next?
As scientists working in one of the most well-connected eras in terms of communication opportunities, we have a chance to make an even bigger impact than simply publishing research papers. But we’re up against a flurry of news, stories, and sensationalism, and it’s a time where folks in different fields are better off working together than pointing fingers at one another. Scientists can learn a lot from the approaches used by journalists in order to better connect and resonate with a broader audience. Next week we’ll talk about interviewing/fact-finding and will follow up the last week with some tips that will enable you to start telling impactful and accurate stories about science and the world around us.
This week we have another collaborative post from guest blogger Namrata Sengupta. She’ll be introducing the concept of risk communication in environmental science and toxicology. Next week we’ll be following up on her introduction with a more detailed look at ways of approaching risk communication approaches and a review of a recent webinar hosted by NOAA. Enjoy!
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 1962, the American conservation biologist Rachel Carson published a book called ‘Silent Spring’. She described the effects of man-made contaminants and their potential of harming wildlife. The book detailed a study on thirty five bird species which were nearing extinction caused by these contaminants entering water bodies, and the story facilitated the ban on DDT in 1972. The book is considered as the scientific foundation for modern environmentalism in America, including the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 1970 as well as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) later that same decade.
Carson was an early pioneer of the field of risk communication. Her book powerfully displayed the combined intellect and thoughtfulness of a person who was a scientist, poet, nature-lover and activist all in one. She inspired a generation of people to become well-informed and to realize the importance of getting involved in environmental health research.
In the modern age of chemical industrialization, the existence of the CWA and CAA has played a major role in protecting both wildlife and human health.
Even 50 years since the publication of Carson’s novel, environmental science and toxicology continues to grow. From decoding manmade chemicals, understanding the complexities of cancer, or using advanced statistical techniques to explaining ecosystem dynamics, our field has expanded not just to labs and journals but also to applications and implications in public health policy and decision-making. Environmental scientists and toxicologists now realize the relevance of their work in policy making but are also constantly critiqued by industry, government, and policy makers who are using their work.
The US EPA developed guidance and structure for characterizing the hazards associated with exposure to environmental contaminants to both wildlife and a human population, which is called risk assessment. The purpose of a risk assessment is to evaluate the potential for exposure to a chemical in the environment as well as the potential impact of these chemicals.
The process of characterizing the potential for chemicals to harm humans or wildlife through risk assessment is an important component of policy making. It provides scientific support for decision making and limits the pervasive social and governmental influences. But regulatory science is not always clear, neither to the government nor to the public. Because of this lack of clarity, the EPA is working to develop better strategies not only for risk assessments but also for communicating the implications of risk to the general public.
What is Risk Communication?
Risk communication is the interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders. For effective risk communication to occur, all impacted stakeholders for a particular setting should be a part of the communication process from the beginning. It is extremely important to identify relevant stakeholders (generally done as a part of risk management strategy) and to develop communication streams to fit their needs. It is also crucial to engage in two-way communication, where stakeholders are able to voice their perspectives, questions, and opinions directly to scientists.
One of the biggest challenges of risk communication is that it is generally the most overlooked aspect of risk assessment and management. Scientists often forget the importance of being able to communicate effectively about their research and scientific opinions when working with a diverse audience. This lack of effective communication has occasionally challenged the ability of industry and government officials to interpret the scientific evidence which can inform regulatory affairs.
Another challenge is how much information should be shared directly with the general audience. In today’s world of the Internet and mass media playing critical roles in science communication, scientists need to be cautious about the interpretation of their data. Strategic training, information sharing sessions, and orientation with the public should be planned by both scientists and policy makers when discussing topics which affect wildlife and human populations.
Why is Risk Communication important?
Our environment, food, and personal health are threatened by exposure to environmental pollutants and bacterial hazards on a daily basis. While there are research and quality control safeguards towards protecting us and our ecosystems, there are times when we may encounter an additional crisis event, such as an oil spill. The communication associated with both daily and event-based risks needs to be a continual and evolving process and not just for a one-time crisis management initiative.
The topics widely covered under the umbrella of risk communication are generally:
1. The levels of risk (environmental/health)
2. The significance of the particular risk
3. The regulations, decisions, and policies in place to deal with these risks
Previously, risk communication was often thought of as a “linear process”, but now experts and all concerned stakeholders understand that it is a “cyclic process”.
In next week’s post, we’ll go into more detail on methods for how to use the cyclic process of risk communication. A big thanks to Namrata for introducing us to risk assessment and communication! For more of her writings, be sure to check out her science and outreach blog.
I tend to get in trouble by our lab safety officer once every two weeks for not wearing a lab coat. I always wear one when working with some dangerous or caustic chemicals, but most of my time spent in a molecular biology lab isn’t hazardous to my health. The main reason that I don’t like to wear a lab coat when it’s not necessary is maybe an unusual one: I don’t want to look like a scientist. Even as a researcher who’s been working in a lab for the past 8 years, I don’t want to fit the stereotype of what a scientist looks like or acts like. But what is the stereotype of a scientist? How do they look and, most importantly, how do they act?
During this summer of lab work, writing, and tweeting, I’ve also been thinking about the ‘big gap’ in science, the gap between what the public thinks of what we do versus our actual research. PhD comics author Jorge Cham does a great job talking about this gap in his TEDxUCLA talk. Cham gives an example of good science communication in a collaborative project to develop a cartoon and video about the Higgs Boson. He makes note that this approach to sharing science took a lot of initiative from the scientists themselves, and it didn’t follow the traditional way of how science is shared with the broader community. Cham also comments on how shows like Big Bang theory portray researchers as eccentric and socially inept, which paints an inaccurate picture of scientists and can make the job seem unattractive to young students who don’t consider themselves geniuses or ‘nerds.’ While I do enjoy Sheldon’s banter on Big Bang Theory (because we all know someone like Sheldon in our group of colleagues or friends), I wonder if there’s a better way to talk about who scientists are and what they do.
These wonderings led me to buy the children’s book, Rebel scientists, last week from Amazon. Rebels play a prominent role in modern-day storytelling: whether it’s Star Wars, Hunger Games, Braveheart, the Matrix, or the French and American revolutions, we all love to cheer for the rebels and the underdogs, be they real or fictional. But can scientists really be a part of this adjective?
Dan Green’s book was one of the winners of the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize for this year. The illustrations, done by David Lyttleton, are a real treat for the eyes and help to focus the storytelling on the scientists themselves and how their work fits into the picture of our understanding of the universe.
The book starts off with the timely question of “What is this thing called science?” and Dan describes it in four parts: curiosity, disagreement, discovery, and a long journey. Scientists are the ones who are curious about how the world around them works. They go against the consensus and the status quo when need be. They know that the world has a lot of mysteries that lie ahead and are driven by asking the why and how of everything and anything. Each science subject is presented as a separate chapter called “The story of ____”, with topics including the solar system, the atom, light, the elements, and genetics. Within each story, Dan starts with the early earliest thinkers and their ideas about how the world works, following through to what we know and are working on in science today. The book depicts the scientific exploration using a diagram of a road which connects discoveries together, while also provides road signs that the reader can follow to link to relevant material in other fields. The road even has the occasional dead end at an explanation of an idea that didn’t quite pan out. While the book is meant for a slightly older reader, probably for students ages 10-14, I’m amazed with the breadth of topics that are covered-and even complex subjects like quantum physics that I even had to re-read a couple of times to get the gist of the story. Below you can find a couple photos from inside the pages so you can get a sense of how the story of science and scientists are told by Dan:
I like how the book describes the Galileo’s and Einstein’s of our world: instead of calling them all geniuses or describing them as hyper-intelligent, the famous thinkers of our world are described with a wider breadth of words. ‘Rock star’, ‘radical’, rabble-rousers’, ‘sharp suited’, and ‘mavericks’ are just a few of the adjectives used. There are stories of disagreements between the biggest minds in science and how they came to a consensus about how the world works. There are stories of researchers going against the grain to pursue their ideas and delve into the mysteries that the rest of the world wasn’t able to see. At the end of the book, you can feel like the moniker of a ‘rebel scientist’ isn’t that far from the truth.
Reading this book also got me thinking about the other things that scientists do and that they are that might not come up at first though, since the thought of a 'rebel scientist' also wasn't the first to spring to mind. So what, exactly, do scientists do?
We get things wrong, and that’s OK. There was more than one road in the Rebel Scientists book that lead to a dead end. But it wasn’t mentioned as a bad thing or that the person who thought the idea was stupid, it’s just a part of the process of science. Modern day science is rife with failures, experiments that go wrong, and ideas that lead to dead ends. It doesn’t mean we’re doing our job wrong, but it may not come to mind to non-scientists that as scientists we might not actually know everything. As Jorge Cham said in his talk, 95% of what makes up the universe is unknown…our world is complex and we have a lot more work to do!
We are diverse, but we can do better going forward. A majority of scientists that feature prominently in history are men from Europe and North America. Some women do make an appearance, as well as a few Arabian scientists, but historically the science community hasn’t been diverse. The modern landscape is more inclusive, but we can still do better. What steps can we take in the future to ensure that everyone has the chance to contribute to the scientific community?
Our job is to challenge the status quo. While scientists might be interpreted as know-it-alls or geniuses who can memorize textbooks and equations, a scientist cannot succeed simply by rout memorization of existing knowledge. Scientists have to be rebels that go against the grain, because that’s how we learn, uncover, and discover. To succeed in science, you have to do the unexpected, and being an elite know-it-all will only hold you back from uncovering the secrets that the universe has hidden from plain view. As Einstein said (and you can read more about him on Page 72 of Rebel Scientists), “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
We do our best when we work as a team and not against each other. There are a lot of dramatic rivals highlighted in Rebel Scientists, and those of us that work in a lab will know of a few other ‘rivals’ of our advisors, collaborators, and colleagues. But what I like about this book is how it highlights the ideas that were put forth not by competing groups but by scientists working together to put the pieces of a puzzle into a single, clear picture. It’s tempting to want to blaze our own trail to fame and glory, so this book is a nice reminder that if the goal is the search for truth and understanding about the universe, working alongside others is better than working in opposition.
Our world is an exciting, terrifying, and unimaginably big place. Figuring out how and why it works the way it does takes brave, enthusiastic, and rebellious minds. If people can rally behind the rebels of the science world as they do for Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen, then Rebel Science will have succeeded in its mission. I hope to see more authors like Dan Green who are working to change the story of science and scientists into something more accurate and more engaging. May the force be with us and the odds ever in our favor!
It’s never a good sign when your day starts with over 200 unread Whatsapp messages. Last Friday (June 24th), I woke up to news that I and my friends on the Liverpool Whatsapp group had thought would never happen: the UK had voted to leave the EU. Even after the initial whirwind round of messages sent in the early morning hours, the rest of the day was spent reading news articles and seeing the shock and disappointment from UK and European friends on Facebook and Twitter. With the flood of posts swirling around in the past few days, I wanted to take the time and think about what Brexit will mean in the context of the type of work that binds me and many of my UK and European friends together: science.
There will be numerous direct effects of leaving the EU on science here in the UK, on everything from the availability of grants, the mobility of professional researchers, and the scientific infrastructure that’s been set up within the EU. As I read these articles and numerous other ones like them, I empathize with my friends who are in the process of developing their own careers in science here. How can you manage additional uncertainties in a field where you already have to spend so much time worrying about grants, short-term contracts, and competitive jobs?
The flood of news articles and opinions continued to pour in over the weekend from experts and scientists, but after being drained of my productivity on Friday and worrying about the implications of Brexit on my own future, I took a break from reading the news this weekend. Even so, one of the article subtitles kept me pondering the rest of the weekend: ‘What has the EU ever done for us?’ This question brought me back to the Life of Brian scene, where while planning an uprising against the oppressive Roman regime, the question is brought up of what, exactly, the Romans ever did for us.
“... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?”
Romans have now come to mind a second time on our blog and for good reason. During my travels around Europe, I’ve been able to visit 16 of the other 27 EU countries, and only 9 of the 28 EU countries (still counting the UK) were never a part of the Roman Empire. In the many places I’ve visited around Europe, I’ve seen enduring remnants of Roman building projects. From the state history museum in Budapest, full of Roman artifacts found across the Hungarian plains, to the impressive and fully intact aqueduct of Segovia, and Hadrian’s Wall just a couple of hour’s drive from Liverpool, stretching across Northern England and still marking the boundary between what was Rome and what was the rest of the world.
Rome was certainly not a perfect empire, but it was one that lasted for over 300 years. This is impressive for a relatively unconnected world as compared to ours, in a time without telecommunications or any transport more rapid than the horse. Even still, Rome was connected across the vast amount of land between its borders, and people were Roman despite where they had been born, what language they spoke, or how exactly they came to be incorporated into the Empire. While I’m sure not everyone had a fantastic life under Roman rule, and there were certainly a fair share of bad emperors throughout the history of the Empire, Rome as a unified concept did mean something important. As a person living in the classical period and regardless of your income or your social status, you would have been able to see the positive impact that a road or clean water had on your life. You would have enjoyed plays in the local amphitheater or the wines and exotic foods more easily available to you and your family from across the empire. You would have felt some protection at being part of a bigger unified nation than when isolated to just your village or your tribe. Being Roman 2000 years ago would have meant being part of something powerful, something beneficial, and something enduring.
But as we already know, Rome didn’t last forever. The empire fell and the Western world left with warring neighbors, short-lived empires, and a period in history that came to be known as the Dark Ages. I don’t believe we’re headed for another dark age, but as history shows us we do need to recognize that history involves cycles of uprisings. But unlike the Dark Ages, we have countless sources of news nowadays, we can get facts and figures from reputable sources, and we can hear directly from experts in order to get a better understanding of the problem using sound logic and reason. Right?
As we discussed in our storytelling post two weeks ago people tend to rely on emotions when making decisions. With money, a family, and a future on the line, people are not always driven by logic, facts, and figures. We are driven by emotions, by stories, and by selfish needs. Unfortunately, the Leave campaign made good use emotions and fed off the enthusiasm of an uprising, bringing together a rousing rally against ‘the man’ (e.g., the EU) that’s apparently holding us back. This line of campaigning is evident from the tweets on their twitter account and you can see a few of the tweets below:
Oddly enough, there’s no equivalent @Vote_Remain Twitter account, and while there are a flurry of #Remain tweets (especially now after the vote is over), it seems that the question of ‘What did the EU ever do for us?’ wasn’t as enthusiastically addressed by the Remain campaign.
But what does this all mean for scientists? In the midst of worrying about the future of our research contracts, the prospects of losing future EU grants, and thinking our colleagues who come from every side of the world to work in the UK, we also have to recognize that in this day in age, scientists are considered ‘the man’. In a campaign that has won by fueling disregard and mistrust in ‘experts’, is it any surprise that people started to go against the recommendations of said experts?
Scientists are not considered to be of a trustworthy profession, and we come off as competent but not very warm. In a recent study conducted in the UK, one person relayed this comment on why they had no interest in science: “Snobs, know it all! Better than others just because they are intelligent, boring and thinking everyone should know what they know!”. Is it then any wonder that in an age where people are taking a stand against the status quo and ‘the man’ that this also means a stand against science?
If scientists want to stop being ‘the man’ that the rest of the world is up against, we need to think about and engage in the communication streams that people get. While most of the other respondents did have a general interest in science, many felt that scientists were hard to access. Events like science fairs and festivals look great on paper or on a resume, but many folks are limited in their ability or interest to take time from their own lives on a busy weekend to go and do such an activity. Many are engaged with science news in the media, but since the media also has the potential to get something wrong or to over-sensationalize something, how can we as scientists do better to share our science? If people feel like we are hard to communicate with unless we come to them in a science fair, why should we expect them to trust us as the experts when we say to them from afar ‘if you do X then Y will happen, so you shouldn’t do X’.
Now is a good time to reflect on how we as scientists can do a better job at not being seen as ‘the man’ but as a member of this team, of the metaphorical Rome that is our world. Based on the results of this survey, it’s not that people have no interest in science or don’t see value in what we do, but that we’re not meeting people where they are, that we’re still stuck in ivory towers pondering all our expert opinions instead of meeting them face to face. We can spend our days post-Brexit worrying about our own grants and jobs, or blaming the other side for whatever happens next, but in a few years’ time the dust will settle on the UK’s exit from the EU, and we’ll still be ‘the man’. If we focus on getting people on our side by talking with them eye-to-eye and making them part of a two-way discussion, we can make sure that we narrow the gap between The People and The Experts. If we meet with and have discussions with people outside the ivory tower, if we engage in listening instead of lectures, we can make connections and we can build trust.
Regardless of the future of the EU, the UK, and everywhere in between, we as scientists still continue to have the power to make great and positive changes in our world. Just because history tends to repeat itself, it doesn’t mean we have to repeat it completely. We can learn from how to connect with people by listening to what fuels their interests and where they want to engage with us. We can change the personal of scientists from being cold-hearted and nerdy towards a more accurate depiction: we are hard-working, motivated, and we are here to make the world a better place for everyone.
Despite the turbulent times that we find ourselves in, I am encouraged by the fact that people do have an interest and are looking for information when they make decisions about their lives. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that even though Rome eventually fell, after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. After having seen first-hand the relics of Rome spread across so many countries, I’m encouraged and hopeful that the relics of a united Europe and a united world will last well beyond our lifetimes. SPQR!
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on public engagement by Steve Cross at our University. While not knowing what to expect at first, I came back from the workshop motivated and impressed with the amount of time, energy, and infrastructure put into encouraging scientists to engage the public here in the UK. I also found myself for the first time actually thinking about what public engagement really is, thanks to the resources and exercises Steve provided in the workshop. The workshop helped me form a concrete understanding of public engagement and the steps needed to make it successful. For this week’s post, I’ll touch on some of the highlights of the workshop, provide some resources n public engagement, and hopefully inspire some of you to take on the challenge of getting involved in some engagement activities this summer.
Universities here in the UK are putting a lot of time and energy into public engagement. Not only are there diverse approaches and a large volume of activities, but there is also formally agreed-upon definitions and structures. At first it might seem a bit overblown: why do we need flow charts and 5-year institute plans when public engagement is just about talking to the public about your research. Right? As it turns out, public engagement is much more complicated than just telling people what you’re research is-at least if the goal of the interaction is to actually become involved in conversations and even collaborate with members of the public.
So what exactly is public engagement? You can find the answer to this and many other questions on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, which also has a wealth of information about how you can get your own engagement activities up and running. On their ‘what is public engagement’ page, you can find the definition:
"Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."
I’ve highlighted the part of the definition that’s key to understand how to put on engaging activities and events. This is why it’s not good enough to just put your papers or your findings out there for the public to see. If you can’t hear back from them, see things from their perspective, or get ideas on what it means and where things can go next, then can you really call it engagement? Below is a simple diagram I developed based on the workshop and the definition above, showing how ideas should go back and forth during public engagement activities, and how collaboration comes only when information has been transmitted and received on both ends. Obviously you have to start somewhere in the dialogue, which is generally in transmitting your ideas to the public, but the key is to engage in such a way as to provide an opening for them to transmit back to you.
Why should we do public engagement?
During the workshop we were asked to come up with reasons for why public engagement was worthwhile. We came up with quite a long list, and you can find other answers here as well. Highlights from our list include:
Personal: Feels good to take part in these types of activities
Educational: For both parties, learning can take place whenever there is an exchange of ideas
Moral: Research uses taxpayer money so there should be an obligation to give back to the community that enabled us to do the research in the first place
Business: If it’s required or encouraged, then at some point you’ll need to do it to get grants
Academic: It’s a place to get new ideas and collaborations while increasing your personal profile
While this all sounds well and good, there are certainly limitations in the way that research is done at the moment that may make it hard to find the time or the infrastructure for these types of activities. For starters, you need to align your aims with those of your research group, institute, or university in order to get a bigger organization on your side, instead of just doing something on your own. For many, it’s likely difficult to find the spare time when public engagement is not explicitly part of your job. In a survey from 2006, 64% of scientists said that the need to spend time on research kept them from doing public engagement-and 20% even said that peers who did this type of work were looked down upon by their colleagues because they were wasting time which could have gone to more papers.
How to engage the public
Since you only have a small amount of spare time in the day to do non-research ‘work’, you’ll want to be efficient about it. In the workshop, Steve gave us a great model for how to think about public engagement activities. His mantra is to avoid focusing on the activity (e.g. ‘it would be really nice to do seminars with Q&A for non-scientists every other Thursday), but instead to think of the aim of the public engagement as well as who the audience will be. Identify your audience and an activity to address a specific set of goals and aims.
Steve also provided a great template for thinking about the two-way aspects of the activity. Once you’ve established the aims and the audience, you can think about how your activity provides specific outcomes for both parties involved. For example, in the ‘skills’ outcome, if you can only fill in something in one box (e.g., just the audience or just the researchers gain some skill after the activity), then what can you do to try to provide some training or enhance the knowledge of the other group?
When working on a project for our own institute’s public engagement group, I found the diagram extremely helpful-and it made me realize the project had other outcomes I hadn’t considered when when I was drafting the idea. It’s also a nice way to visualize exactly what you’re giving to your audience, and to see the possibilities for enabling and empowering people with your activity, which can certainly be a motivator on its own. Another take-home that I got from this workshop is that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once. You can do small things to empower groups one event at a time. Even if the level of empowerment is just a few take-home facts, a small amount of knowledge added up over time can amount to a lot.
Who is the public?
While talking about public engagement, it may seem trivial to take a step back and define what ‘the public’ actually is. During the workshop, it quickly became apparent that the public is not a single entity, nor one that can be talked to or interacted consistently. The public is a diverse, heterogeneous set of people with varying interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Part of the workshop involved brainstorming specific audiences for events and thinking about who would actually turn up to a public engagement event. For example, events held at museums will have a different group of people depending on the time of the week and the day. If you’re there on a Saturday afternoon versus a Monday morning versus a Thursday museum late-night event, the primary groups at each of those will be different, so the approaches used at each event to engage with people should also be different.
It soon became clear that when thinking of the audience before drafting an activity that we can’t assume the audience is ‘everyone’, and as part of the workshop we were given an exercise about tailoring approaches based on the demographic and their interests. Our group had to construct a persona of a young couple on holiday who came to the museum and saw our science outreach activity, and we had to imagine the their attributes in terms of their interests, free-time activities, media consumed, brands, favorite foods/film/books/games, emotional needs, and life stage. The exercise felt like being an advertising executive, but breaking things down in this way helped us see the barriers as well as the ‘ins’ to a person’s perspectives that could help drive a message home. It helped us see how we could meet people where they are and made us appreciate how events are promoted to target certain groups and who might see and share things based on where they’re advertised.
Making science communication count: get out there!
Public engagement is not limited by public interest, and it still seems that the public has the impression that scientists put too little effort to tell the public about their work. Even in 2016, when scientists are embracing social media and new outlets for communication, there might still be a residual ivory tower mindest that is holding us back from sharing our research. Given that the public is hungry for science, we as scientists should work to give it to them! You can start off by finding events already happening in either your research community, university, or city-whether there’s a museum you can volunteer at or a school that’s looking for a scientist to talk to primary school students about ecology, there’s always a way to find events to connect yourself with. Think about what you already enjoy doing, whether it be writing, working with kids, organizing or participating in debates, or making creative and colorful visuals, and look for ways to incorporate your talents and interests to events and activities already happening. Then when you’ve had your feet wet, think about why you want to make a change in something, who you want to reach, and what you can do to get there.