Part one of a series of posts on science communication and public engagement from a beginner in the field.
Contributor Emily Porter
When I first told my non-academic acquaintances that I was doing a PhD, I got a few puzzled looks. They were even more mystified when I went on to explain what my project was. I had assumed they would be interested but they tuned out only a short way into my introduction (I was working on a cat virus).
This got me thinking, why is it generally considered acceptable to discuss popular culture, art or history at a dinner party, but not science or mathematics? Perhaps because everyone is comfortable with having an opinion on these subjects, there is no right or wrong answer, whilst it is more daunting to go out on a limb and argue about a scientific theory.
As scientists, we have a duty to inform and enthuse people about what we do and who knows, we might even receive new perspectives or ideas from them in return. Many of us are funded by government schemes or charitable trusts and in return for their support, it is only fair that we give something back in return. We also owe it to our profession. After all, where will the next generation of researchers come from if we don’t show people how fascinating and rewarding science can be?
However, how much do people really know about what a scientist does in the lab on a day to day basis? A recent Ipsos MORI poll reports that whilst most people claim they are aware of what scientists do, 20% still say they’re not really sure. Slightly worryingly, 35% of people think that ‘scientists adjust their findings to get the answers they want’, with honesty being the most desirable trait in a scientist and only 52% of people think that what they hear about science is generally true. Although thankfully 81% of people think that on the whole, science will make our lives easier.
In addition, there is an almost infinite amount of information on the internet today, provided by anyone and everyone. In order to prevent people becoming inundated with information or being misinformed, we need to promote interesting and relevant science using public engagement events, science writing and social media platforms.
As a result of the drive to make science accessible to all, interest in communicating science and engaging with the public has rocketed. Several universities now offer MSc courses in science communication, and you only have to sign up to a mailing list such as PSCI-COM, to become bombarded with news about meetings, projects and so on in the UK. As a newcomer to science communication, I decided to jump straight in and signed up for a variety of activities: a media training day in London, a stall at the Bristol Festival of Nature and a science communication conference run by the British Science Association. The sheer number of opportunities to do science communication in the UK can be somewhat overwhelming and I chose an approach that would give me an introduction to several different options. For example, the media training day was offered by the funding body that support my postdoc project, so it’s always worth checking the opportunities available to you.
Science communication not only adds to your CV and gives you a sense of achievement, it also teaches you valuable skills for explaining your research concisely, a must have ability for conferences, grant applications, liaising with media or government officials and any other networking opportunities. So for those of you who think it’s impossible for you to take on any extra work, just remember that intrinsically you want people to know about your research and your findings and the only way to do this is to get out there and tell people.
Through the blog posts that follow this, I hope can provide some first-hand advice about how you can get stuck in, what works well and what doesn’t and why science communication is an important thing for young researchers to think about.
Emily Porter is is a post-doctoral researcher working on swine influenza virus at the University of Bristol, and is trying to fit some science communication around her lab work! In her spare time she can be found rowing on the river Avon, hanging out with her pets or generally just playing outside in the fresh air.