#SciCommPrimer, pt I

The British Science Association are awesome- whether it’s running their school science CREST award scheme, hosting and running academic lectures or funding public engagement, they’re “changing the way the public interact with science”. But they don’t just do that. They interact with government and impact science policy as well as training scientists and engineers to be better science communicate their work with the public. The BSA’s Programme’s Director Katherine Mathieson opens today’s Science Communication Masterclass by making a point of why we’re here at all- scientists are given their ‘licences to operate’ by the public who fund them, and the ideas and feedback from a “lay audience” can be illuminating. It can do everything from shape research to make you fall back in love with what you do, all of which is super important for both parties involved.

We’re here to talk about science communication- from the vague beginning, middle and end of your story to the nitty gritty of feedback and evaluation. I’m going to spread my write up to make sure I get it all down, and that my mum (/ only reader!) reads the whole thing. Dr Jane Gregory is an expert- she’s literally written a course on it. According to Gregory, there’s something painfully obvious about what we’re all trying to do. Communicating your research/ results/ findings is nothing new and the public have always been “excited” by science. She has loads of great examples: the delight in the faces of Joseph Wright’s 1768 Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, the transparent orrerey “Eidouranion” that occupied the Lyceum Theatre in 1817 to the Walker Family’s Sunday Science shows. Without the aid of twitter, the popular weekend work of the Walker Family made them science celebrities whose portraits still hang in the National Portrait Gallery today. Adam Walker is basically my ex lab partner Seb, an old school genius who can cover ‘Astronomy, the use of Globes, Pneumatics, Electricity, Magnetism, Chemistry, Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, Engineering, Fortifications, and Optics’ without stopping for breath.

For 12 years there was a Great Globe in London’s Leicester Square, which sounds like the Costa Del Sol of 1852 (in terms of a go-to summer destination). It wasn’t even all women back then, although chemist Jane Marcet wrote “Conversations in Chemistry” in 1806- a model in popular science writing. Huxley, Kelvin, Faraday, you name it, these scientists were getting around. The Royal Institution was founded as a building where science communication could happen. The funny thing is, we’re not even the first people patronise our ‘lay’ public. Charles Babbage (that’s Ada Lovelace’s husband to all my #womeninSTEM) wrote of the decline of science in 1829 and cried a change in public perception: science professionals weren’t asserting themselves in public and science wasn’t being supported by government. 140 years later we set up COPUS, the committee on the public understanding of science, blaming the public for their intrinsic lack of enthusiasm for science. Science communication served three primary purposes:

  • Practical – encourage a can-do culture within the general public, encouraging people to fix things and no go to A&E when they feel a bit under the weather
  • Cultural – science is a wonderful achievement of mankind, and like the best poetry, music and art, we owe it to the world to share it
  • Democratic – enable people to participate in political life and solve problems with scientific solutions.
  • A new generation of researchers are using it for Publicity and for PR, whether for their field, their institution or their specific research finding. One definition of publicity is a “display of riches”- which means you’ve got to be careful how you do it.

What’s even more complicated is trying to gauge your audience. What does ‘the public’ really mean? In a classroom you’ll deal with a whole range of abilities, attending a public science lecture there will be everyone from your seasoned expert to your fourteen-year-old enthusiast and their disconnected visiting cousin who doesn’t speak much English. Often science communication is in front of an audience who’ve chosen to be there (rather like a self-selecting cinema audience), but it’s pretty complicated to start defining. In 2014 Ipsos Mori and the Wellcome judged everyone on their attitude to science, from the late adopters to the concerned to the disengaged, indifferent, distrustful and confident engagers.

So… it’s not just what you say, it’s who you say it too.. and then some. Actually how you set up your communication channel is super important. Faraday took centre stage at the Royal Institution, with a bench separating him from the public. He dressed in a suit, he was the only one standing up- he may have been doing a public lecture, but he really was top banana.

In 1986 the US National Science Foundation assessed science understanding across the world, asking questions like “are electrons smaller than atoms?” and “does the sun go round the earth?”. The results came back- 23 % of Americans thought the earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs and 43 % thought antibiotics could kill viruses and bacteria. A phrase accessed a lot over the day is the ‘deficit model’: the public are deficient of knowledge and we really owe it to them to give them the “right knowledge” and change their beliefs, attitudes or behaviour. Using the examples of nuclear power and sun cream, Gregory argues very eloquently that this isn’t what it’s all about. There are plenty of people who are naïve about nuclear but would still support and trust energy companies to set it up, and there are likely even more people who know about the health risks of not wearing sun cream but still don’t wear it. We don’t do blood alcohol tests on bus drivers, we just get on. Sometimes there’s a level or trust and understanding that we’re just fine with. A few years ago there was this amazing French cartoon describing the UK’s understanding of science communication as filling the empty brains of the public, and in 2015 Brian Cox said Britain faced an “urgent scientific illiteracy problem”. And the audience, the public, the British population don’t just listen, they also speak.

Gregory guided us through a comparison of popular vs professional science. Popular science isn’t jargon, there are fewer words/symbols/numbers, they use verbs not nouns to describe how things get done, they presume wrong thinking that needs to be corrected “you probably think that” and there’s always the big reveal (!). It can be uncritical and self-celebratory (using lots of I’s and you’s) or it can be about sharing wonder (‘we’). There’s fine detail in the use of rhetoric too, from forensic (factual), to deliberative (explanatory) and epideictic (reactionary). For professional science, facts come first and reactions are irrelevant, whereas for popular science explaining things is key and the facts..well.. less so.

Gregory outlines what’s important for her (and the MSc in Sci Comm at Manchester):

  1. Sort out your conceptual repertoire (understanding there are theories and ideologies about science and communication)
  2. Science knowledge/ critical understanding
  3. Communication skills
  4. Technological competence
  5. Political & economic literacy
  6. Moral inquisitiveness
  7. Cultural sensitivity
  8. Critical consumption

So far, so great.. I’ll try and write up the other sessions tomorrow (a creative and inspiring panel discussion, a workshop on narrative and an overview of evaluation) along with the super exciting discussion with sci comm superstar Dallas Campbell.


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