#SciCommFuture by the British Science Association: Why do we stop being a scientist when we take off our safety goggles?

When did you have a really good breakfast meeting? Not just a meeting where there were too many croissants, or a sensationally dark coffee- but a meeting where the was a discussion was as dynamic as your greatest pub trips… Well, mine was today.

infogFor five years the British Science Association (BSA) and Wellcome Trust have run an annual ‘Science Communication Conference‘ at different venues across the country, uniting science communicators for a two-day festival of ideas and events. Over this time they’ve built up a great database (and twitter following) of enthusiastic science communicators, and they’ve decided to survey us. The BSA’s report, Science Communicators: Where Are They Now? is available on their website. They’ve done their homework. 516 science communicators have spoken, and the main findings are pretty incredible:

There are some key hubs in the UK for science communication and public engagement

  • London (26%)
  • South West England (14%)
  • Scotland (11%)

Two thirds of science communicators are women

  • Respondents were more likely to be female (66%)
  • Majority were aged between 25-44 (68%).
  • There was no statistical difference in ethnicity compared with national data.

Is science communication the right name?

Survey respondents classed themselves as working in:

  • Education (30%)
  • Science communication (29%)
  • Public engagement (21%)

Should there be an official body for science communicators?

  • More professionalised (55%)
  • Strong opposition to this approach (45%).

Science communicators want to change the way the world sees science, and many do this unpaid:

Why are you doing what you do?

  • Making science part of culture (39%)
  • Keeping the public informed about science (27%)
  • Making science more democratic (14%)
  • Majority (66%) are undertaking some of this work unpaid

Moving the sector forward – connectivity, recognition and standards

  • Improve Connectivity between science communicators, and with those outside the sector was most common (33%).
  • Gain Recognition for public engagement (29%)
  • Improve Standards (20%)

Sure, the results are interesting, and yes, the infographic is incredible- but how do you make sure people actually read it? You arrange a meeting that ends before ‘real’ workday begins, with free food, close to the SciComm Capital of Imperial College London. The unique Science Communication MSc offered by Imperial is almost the only evidence in the report of some effort toward professionalising the Sci Comm Army- and I sat next to a very eloquent one this morning.

A three-part panel of the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial (who I seem to be following around lately..) Professor Tom Welton, science comedian Helen Arney and BSA Director Katherine Mathieson led the discussion. I’m pretty sure Professor Tom Welton has no idea who I am- we’ve never really been within two metres of each other- but he eloquently described exactly how I’ve been feeling over the past year. Two big things for Tom in the report were the high proportion of female science communicators and the high proportion of people doing this unpaid, without the desire for more professional accreditation. As Dean of FoNS, Tom knows about gender balance. He also sits in on a lot of meetings where terms like ‘leaky pipeline’ (the process by which science loses women at every stage of their scientific adventure) get thrown around. Implicit in the term ‘leaky’ is the term ‘lost’- it’s that these people leave academia to do something worse. Tom’s not surprised that the majority of the science communicators are women.


When Professor Welton hung up his lab coat and stopped being Head of Chemistry, he headed for the Blue Box (Imperial’s faculty building) via the Science Museum shop. There he armed himself with periodic table mugs, determined to retain some sense of his scientific identity. When Professor Welton left chemistry he did not ‘de-skill’, far from it- being Dean of FoNS adds hugely to his professional portfolio. Professor Welton is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, which is not a learned society but a professional body. Professor Welton says there is value in professional accreditation and setting certain standards. Even when Professor Welton is communicating science he feels like an amateur. His approach to teaching has always been self-reflective, with a sense of purpose. As an educator, it’s more important to consider what the audience hear to what you say. There are strong words to be had with those whose science communication is all about them- those who say “my science communication is all about me”.

I honestly could have written down everything Professor Welton said. He oversees a hugely complex institution where a lot of different tasks need to be done- and each needs to be properly valued. There’s a hierarchy in scientific academia: research > teaching > public engagement, which is not good for culture and not good for the victims (be they incoming students or communicators).

The stars of stand-up comedy have to bring everything they’ve got to the stage. Imperial physics graduate Helen Arney left science and it took a few years of the Arts to make her realise that science was a pretty big part of her story. Helen is committed to getting science more ingrained into our culture. No one tells you that you won’t enjoy music, film, art or politics without a degree, but they’ll happily label you not a physicist. Times are changing: her latest science comedy radio show has been approved by a comedy commissioner at Radio 4 (not the science commissioner), and the sheer number of people entering science communication is silently improving standards. Helen is- as I am- consistently amazed to meet people who only identify as a scientist.

The discussion with the floor is much more lively than anyone expected before lunch- largely focussed around professionalisation and what it could mean. The Royal Institution have produced a similar report (here) and amongst their subscribers, those who were against accreditation thought that no one would really understand what they do. We’ll have to start asking serious questions about what we’re doing it for. The majority of the time (take the detection of gravitational waves last week) the public interacts with science, the conversation afterward goes something like “Did you see their show!?!” “…I didn’t really understand it” “….but it was AMAZING!”. For the academic science communicators; they want something to gauge how they’re doing- their colleagues go by Nature publications whereas they go by smiling children. Katherine Mathieson sees two-step value in accreditation, the first is to simply ‘accredit’ and the second is to know what the standards are so that those who aren’t accredited can aspire toward them. Most of the volunteers for the BSA ask about what kind of training they’ll need. Elements of scientific communication are creeping onto undergraduate curricula via ambassador training and placements in schools… But we’ve got to be careful because accreditation means inclusion into an already too pronounced clique: and stamps of inclusion results in stamps of exclusion. Representatives from the Science Museum recognise that public want to interact with people like themselves, and to best represent that they have to consider all, not just those with a seal of approval.

There’s a government policy maker who brands herself a scientist, science communicator and government official. When she entered parliament and faced her loss of scientific identity; she went mug shopping too. Why do we stop being a scientist when we take off our safety goggles?

Simon Levey from comms at Imperial points out that the majority of the public interaction with science comes from PR and corporate communications: journalists, television presenters and authors. These people are from largely non-scientific backgrounds, transiently working in quickly changing sectors: what happens to them? These non-scientists will likely never brand themselves science communicators, but do more science communication than the majority of scientists- it’s a mess.

The Public Engagement team at Cambridge, who only have a little chip on their shoulder having left a research group which went on to win Nobel Prizes and become Fellows of the Royal Society, say we need to diversify the academic science sector as a whole. The old guard will never recognise science communicators as relevant scientists if everyone in a university wants to become a professor. The relatively conservative world of science means dictates that if one leave science, one is lost to science- it’s up our generation to change that.

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