The field of science communication is highly varied, so don’t be afraid to find what works for you, says the panel of experts in science communication at the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo in London.
Guest contributor Catherine Seed
Science communication is rapidly becoming a core requirement for scientists, and has long been a highly sought-after career in its own right.
There is a huge breadth and diversity in the field of science communication, agreed the panel members, yet the use of ‘science communication’ as an umbrella term often obscures this variety. Panellists agreed that the key to developing a successful science communication career is in finding how you prefer to communicate, and determining which avenues of communication match your style. With options ranging from news reporting to working for academic institutions or societies, or in simply starting your own blog, the options are countless. The process, they said, requires much experimentation; test different forms of communication to discover what works best for you.
The objectives of organisations shape the form of communication that they use, said Robert Dawson, head of news at the BBSRC. He stressed the importance of familiarising yourself with different media outlets, universities, research institutions, and companies and their communication style. In his own role, he communicates to scientists, journalists and other members of the media. “Science PR is about balancing the need to encourage the public to be enthusiastic about your organisation and about science, with the need to produce accurate and balanced coverage,” he said.
Panellists pointed out that the audiences for science communication vary broadly, ranging from the public to industry to government to the non-profit sector. Anke Sparmann, an associate editor at Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, reminded the audience to not overlook the fact that scientists are among the biggest consumers of science news and information, and that a communications role at an academic journal can help one to maintain a connection to science.
In this field, one’s audience determines the medium, style and format in which you communicate, and that is likely to shift often. “As scientists we live in a world where it is actually more like 250 shades of grey rather than 50 shades of grey,” said Belinda Quick, the head of nutritional affairs EU at Mondelēz International in London. “Part of the job is taking really, really complex ideas and simplifying them down so that the meaning and the scientific integrity are maintained, but your audience actually understands what you are saying.”
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You can start training in the field whilst still in your PhD programme. Catherine Ball, policy analyst for the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, acknowledged that the idea of developing communication skills may seem daunting, but said that many of the skills we develop during the process of earning a PhD — especially resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles – have applications in communication. She encouraged students to seize the opportunities around them. “Get involved in writing for student newspapers, working for learned societies and writing blogs,” she advised. Other speakers recommended joining scientific associations, and to be aware of resources available to communicators, such as the mailing list PSCI-COM, which posts advice and job opportunities in science communication, and STEMPRA, a network for STEM communication and PR professionals, membership to which provides access to networks of communicators as well as training opportunities. The panel highlighted that online resources can be a valuable source of advice, opportunities and connections across different forms of science communication.
Finding your role is an active process.
If you want to work in science communications, you must practice and develop communication skills. Dawson, who has trained more than 250 scientists in media skills, encouraged those who hope to enter the field to actively develop their skills by ensuring that they “actually vocalize it…say it to your friends, say it to your family, let them question it.” Sparmann added that aspiring science communicators must seek and recognize opportunities and not allow fear to get in the way of applying for positions.
“You are never going to get anywhere if you don’t try doing the things you feel uncomfortable with,” said Quick. “If you are feeling uncomfortable then you are heading in the right direction.” Audience members agreed. “It gives us a little push in the back to start practising,” said Gala Classen, a PhD student at Freie Universität Berlin.