Category Archives: Speaking to…

Speaking to… Sarah Weldon

It’s quite ironic, that technology and things like the World Wide Web mean that we have more access than ever to the world, yet we have also become disconnected to the planet. We take it for granted.

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Image courtesy Sarah Weldon

Name: Sarah Weldon, CEO of UK Charity Oceans Project

Based: live in the Lake District, from Henley-On-Thames, and doing a PhD part time at Roehampton University, so I’m pretty much all over the UK, especially as I run talks for schools through School Speakers. 

What is your background? I originally trained as a neuropsychologist, so I’m excited about the biology of the brain affects our behaviour. This led to a 17-year career in the NHS and social services, as well as abroad, mainly working with young people.

As a keen scuba diver, I also trained as an IMCA Diver Medic Technician at the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth. I was terrible at physics and chemistry at school, but loved human biology, its only now as an adult, learning about the electrics on my boat, and things like navigation and tides, that I’m really enjoying STEM subjects, in a real life context.

Why are you interested in science communication?

Probably because I just didn’t get it at school. I was in a mixed ability class, with lots of naughty boys and mainly supply teachers, so we were just given a heavy book to carry to lessons. It was only in later life that I really discovered science and all the different careers, so I wasted a lot of time. If we had been exposed to science communicators and STEM Ambassadors from the world outside of school, I think we would have been more excited and exposed to the opportunities available to us.

I love those moments when I meet young people, talk to them and just know that something has clicked, and their face has a complete look of excitement. That’s how learning should be, it’s about exploration of the world around us and being allowed to ask questions. As we get older, we often stop asking the question ‘why’. The world is changing so fast around us, that we need scientists to continue making progress. In my own lifetime, the World Wide Web was invented and that in itself has revolutionised the way we live our lives. Education really has to keep learning fresh and new.  Continue reading

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Speaking to… Jason G Goldman

“As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.”

jason-g-goldman-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jason G Goldman

Name?

Jason G. Goldman

Where are you based?

Los Angeles, California

Who do you work for?

I’m freelance at the moment. My regular gigs are a blog with Scientific American, a roughly fortnightly column with BBC Future, and just a few weeks ago I began writing a weekly column at Conservation Magazine. I also contribute pretty regularly to the blog at Nautilus Magazine, and I’ve been writing for the Advances section of the Scientific American print magazine for the past few months. The last couple years I’ve also been an Associate Editor at ScienceSeeker, where my main responsibilities have been to coordinate the weekly selection of editors’ picks and to cat-herd the editors themselves. While there I also oversaw the first “ScienceSeeker Awards.”

What are the ScienceSeeker Awards?

It was a contest in which people nominated their favorite blog posts that were written in 2012, and a group of judges selected the best. Winners received small cash prizes. Read more here and here. In the future, the ScienceSeeker Awards will actually be combined with the Open Lab project. More info on that will come soon, I think.

What type of science communication do you do?

Primarily writing. I also take a lot of photos (for fun), and enjoy when I can use one of my own photos to support my writing, but I identify mostly as a writer. Video and youtube are fascinating for me, but for now I’m still in the thinking-of-ideas phase. I’m so used to writing 800 or 1000 or 1500 word articles. Could I translate those skills to writing a 3-4 minute video script? My friend Joe Hanson says I can. I’m still experimenting. And as for what sorts of things I write, I like to write about things I find cool or interesting or surprising, and I like to draw connections between current events and the scientific literature. It’s what Ed Yong has called the “wow” beat. I’ve also gotten the chance to do a few radio and TV interviews, and those are always really, really fun. So is giving talks. As a writer, you can’t really ever see the reaction of your audience to the things you think are really cool. You can’t hear them laugh at your jokes and bad puns. But you can when you’re giving a talk, and as a writer, that’s invaluable.

How would you translate the written word to the screen?

On-screen visuals become more important. While words – that is, what you say – also matter a great deal, you can say less and communicate the same ideas because you can use imagery to do part of the work. At least, that’s my intuition. As I said, this is something I’ve only just begun to think deeply about.

Who is your main audience?

Anyone who will listen to me long enough to learn something! It’s so hard to get a sense of who your readership is beyond metrics like what sorts of browsers they use and what search terms they used to land on your piece. I try to assume that my readers don’t necessarily have a scientific education beyond the high school level, but I also think its important not to patronize them. There’s an important difference between a reader’s intelligence and his or her knowledge. You don’t want to underestimate their intelligence, while also not overestimating their knowledge. I do know that students sometimes use my writings in their school research, so I try to keep that in mind with my writing. My blog (and other writings) is family friendly.

How important is it to use metrics to understand your audience?

I think it’s good to start with at least having a sense of who your intended audience is. Are you writing for other scientists? For people within your own field? For kids? Families? Practitioners of some sort? The question of whether your actual and intended audiences overlap actually coincide is a separate one. I’m not certain that traditional web analytics can be all that useful for that sort of question, but there are other ways to find out who your audience is: you could just ask them, you could try to see who is sharing your work on social media, and so on.

How did you get into it?

I was reading science blogs back in a time when you could just about read every new blog post written about science every day. I realized that I wasn’t necessarily reading what I wanted to read. There were some excellent psychology or cognitive science blogs that occasionally covered animals (like Dave and Greta Munger’s excellent Cognitive Daily), and there were some great animal- or biology-focused blogs that occasionally covered behavior or cognition. Around the same time my own research interests were changing. My masters research involved conducting MRI studies of reading and dyslexia, but what I really wanted to do was investigate the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind. So I thought, “hey, I can totally be a science blogger.” I used the fact that I was increasingly reading more in the animal cognition literature as an excuse to write blog posts about papers. Thus was The Thoughtful Animal born, on WordPress, in January of 2010. It wasn’t my first blog, but it was my first science blog. In March of that year I was invited to join Scienceblogs.com, and that was the start of my realization that I could perhaps leverage my “writing about science in my so-called free time as a graduate student” into a career.

Was it difficult to start writing about the science, or did it come naturally because of your interest in it? 

The difficulty for me wasn’t in writing about science, it was writing about science in an accessible, engaging way. It was in learning what are the sorts of details that are worth including and what are the sorts of details you can leave out. Do your readers want to know the intricacies of the statistical tests that were used in a given experiment, or only what the take-home message was? Should you describe every control condition? (Part of figuring this out is knowing who your audience is; see above) The next step, for me, was to begin to figure out how to infuse narrative into my writing. That is an enormous challenge itself, and it’s one I’m constantly trying to work on. That is, how to tell a story about the science rather than simply describing the science.

Why do you do it?

It’s fun. I really enjoyed research, but as I progressed in grad school I began to realize that the academic life wasn’t necessarily for me, for many reasons. In science, you really have to push hard on one particular question (or set of questions) for at least a few years at a time before switching gears and exploring other questions. But as a writer, I can jump into an entirely different set of questions every couple days. I also think that science communication simply really important. More on that in the next question.

Why do you think science communication is important?

David Attenborough recently said in an interview, “You can’t operate as a sensible voting member of a democratic society these days unless you understand fundamental scientific principles to a degree.” Indeed, the communication of scientific ideas to diverse audiences is critical for shaping policies in areas ranging from species protection and restoration to sustainable agriculture, fisheries management, energy use, and dozens more. For some people, perhaps learning more about the animals we share our planet with can be an entry point into understanding that science is both important and interesting.

What do you love about science communication?

It’s a constant challenge. Forget the fact that you need to understand the nuances of the research you’re trying to explain, or that you need to figure out an interesting, engaging way of explaining it. Both of those things are fun challenges to negotiate, but then there’s the part where the science communication ecosystem is evolving. The technologies we’re using today are going to be obsolete soon enough and we’ll have to learn something new. Science communicators working in a world fueled by YouTube and Instagram, powered by smartphones and tablets, have to think creatively about how to leverage the web and other technologies to construct their narratives and to deliver them to their audiences. Science writing is no longer limited to blog posts, feature articles, or books, but also occurs in the form of Facebook status updates and tweets. The so-called “death of print” has meant that science magazines exist both as print and digital entities. Blogs increasingly look like magazines. Some of the best (and worst) examples of the e-book “revolution” are science-based. And science writing – that is, the use of text – is but one part of a broader science communication ecosystem, and increasingly appears alongside photography, graphics, comics, videos, podcasts, animations, and mobile apps. It complements interactive media like timelines, maps, and games, and shows up even in museum or zoo exhibits. It might be becoming harder to actually make a sustainable living doing this – that’s what I’m told, at least – but it seems like there are more opportunities to actually communicate science than there perhaps have been ever before.

Do you think the world of science writing is doing well to keep up with this technological revolution?

Absolutely! There are a lot of very clever people who are experimenting, tinkering, figuring out how to leverage every new technology for science communication. It’s very exciting to watch and to participate in it where I can. Even just a casual perusal of The Atavist‘s offerings is a testament to the innovation in science communication. I’m a big fan of what they do. There’s also a great deal of more informal science communication that’s thrilling to watch. The official twitter account of the Mars Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) has nearly 1.5 million followers! The National Zoo’s Panda Cam is still going strong. These are different forms of science communication than your more traditional books and magazine articles and even blog posts, but they are science communication efforts nonetheless.

What has been your favourite project?

I’m really enjoying my new column at Conservation Magazine, it’s given me a chance to take a bit of a contrarian perspective on some big, thorny, controversial issues in conservation (like trophy hunting, for example). My sense of accomplishment was perhaps biggest as the result of serving as guest editor for the 2010 edition of Open Lab, the annual anthology of the bets science writing online. After nearly a year of effort, the feeling of holding The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best Science Writing on the Web – made of actual, dead trees – in my hands was pretty nice.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m always, always pitching new stories to my editors. I’m excited about organizing ScienceOnline Brain, a psychology- and neuroscience-focused ScienceOnline conference, which will take place in summer 2014 in Los Angeles.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

There is at least one different path for every science communicator out there. The most widely-applicable advice is perhaps also the most obvious: read a lot, and not just science, and not even just non-fiction. And write a lot. Get started with blogging. Those early days in the relative obscurity of WordPress may seem tough – and they will be – but nothing is more important than simple practice. “Practice,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say, “makes better.”

Okay, one more thing. I think watching movies is useful too. Movies are arguably one of the most popular and successful forms of narrative storytelling in our culture today, so its worth paying attention to things like structure and rhythm and scene-setting while watching movies, and even TV shows too.

You can keep up to date with Jasons’ many activities via his Twitter feed at @jgold85 or visit his website.

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Speaking to… Katie Mack

“I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

KAtie-Mack-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Katie Mack

Name?

Katie Mack

Where are you based?

Melbourne, Australia

Who do you work for?

University of Melbourne, School of Physics. I’m a postdoctoral researcher, studying dark matter and the formation of galaxies.

What type of science communication do you do?

Most of the science communication I do is via Twitter. I talk about a lot of different things: recent results in physics and astronomy, life as a research scientist, the joys and challenges of academia, stuff I’m working on, and science in general. Because it’s my personal Twitter feed, I also post about what I’m up to on any given day, which I hope keeps me sounding like a human being rather than just a science robot.

I also write blog posts and popular-level articles about science and the academic life, and give lectures, and do school outreach, and co-host an astro-chat YouTube series, and am now branching out to Facebook… I pretty much talk science whenever and however I can!

What do you think branching out to Facebook will add?

Twitter is a great way of connecting with people, but not everyone with an interest in science is on Twitter. I started the Facebook page to see if the science I share on Twitter would be of interest to Facebook users, and to allow for the possibility of longer discussions. So far, over 100 people have “Liked” the page. At the moment, I think most are people who already follow me on Twitter, but I think it’s a more accessible medium for some people and I think there’s a chance it’ll expand to a bigger following. It’s sort of an experiment at the moment!

Why are you increasing your online presence?

I really enjoy doing outreach and talking about science, and doing that online is something that feels pretty natural and non-intrusive. I also like taking on the role of a sort of resident expert on matters of physics and astronomy, and the bigger my online presence, the more opportunities I get to do that. Of course, I also think it’s important for there to be more female scientists out there as role models, and since I enjoy this sort of thing and find it helpful for other areas of my career, I might as well put myself out there as an example.

Why do you think social media is such a useful tool?

The interactiveness is really the key thing. There’s a real need people to be able to engage with scientists directly, as much as there is a need for outlets that simply present information. Social media is a great way to allow for two-way interaction, in a way that’s not too demanding of the scientist’s time. I don’t answer all the questions I get, but I can talk to people directly, get people’s opinions, and find out what kinds of concepts are confusing or most interesting to people. And the system of feedback (retweets, “favorites,” “Likes,” shares) makes it easy to tell what kinds of topics and modes of engagement are resonating with the audience. It’s great for honing communication skills.

Who is your main audience?

When I first got started using Twitter as a science communication tool, I defined my audience to be the sort of person who would seek out and follow an astrophysicist on Twitter. Basically, I mostly write for people who are interested in science but not necessarily educated in it at all. I try to keep the things I write accessible to people with a high-school level of education and no science background. In practice, I think a healthy fraction of the people who follow me on Twitter or seek out my other science communication work are either scientists (aspiring or established) or science educators, but I hope that what I put out there interests the general non-sciency public as well.

How did you get into it?

As for science writing and outreach, I got started in that while I was still in college. I’ve always loved talking about science to anyone who would listen, so talking at schools or writing for the popular press were fantastic things to get to do whenever I had the opportunity.

Getting into Twitter was originally an attempt to use social media as a professional tool. A colleague of mine did a lot of tweeting about conferences and seemed to get a lot out of it, and when I attended a talk of his at Cambridge and saw that he had put his Twitter handle on his title slide, I knew I had to try it. I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there. When I saw that a lot of my followers were not fellow astronomers but actually just people who stumbled upon my feed, I realized I could do some very direct science outreach by answering questions and bringing my expertise to the public in an accessible way.

What impact do you think a tool like Twitter can have in science communication?

I definitely think the interactivity is key, as well as the casual nature of Twitter (for most tweeters). With Twitter, scientists can allow non-scientists to have a window into what they do on a daily basis, what they think about, and what their lives are like. Check out the @RealScientists Twitter account for a project based mainly on that concept. It can be a great way to humanize something that most of the public finds completely mysterious. And it allows the public to directly interact with scientists and ask them questions, which makes it possible for the public to have a voice in the communication and to ask about what they are most interested in exploring. It also opens up science communication for scientists who don’t have the time or inclination to get involved in more structured outreach projects — scientists can just pop over to Twitter from time to time without making a major commitment. In that way, it can be a lot more valuable than science communication that just relays facts — with social media, we can relay how science actually works, which is, I think, much more important.

Do you think science, and science communication could benefit more if more scientists use tools like Twitter?

I think so. Things like Twitter are a great way for scientists to connect with each other and to become better communicators, which is helpful just from a research science perspective. And the level of engagement social media allows makes it great for science communication. I don’t think it’s necessary for ALL scientists to use social media. Certainly some people just aren’t into it, and that’s fine. But I think it’s a more versatile tool than a lot of scientists realize.

Why do you do it?

I really enjoy it! There are few things more fun for me than talking about science to people who are genuinely curious. But I also feel that, as a publicly funded scientist, I have a moral responsibility to share my knowledge as openly as possible. Governments fund science because improving our understanding of how the Universe works is something that advances humanity as a whole, and if those of us doing this work just keep it to ourselves (or make it effectively inaccessible by only publishing for specialists), we’re hindering that process. I’m not saying EVERY scientist should do a lot of public outreach, since obviously some of us are much better suited to it than others, but I do think that those of us with a passion and opportunity for science communication really should do it as much as we can.

I should also mention that I think science communication helps my professional work in a number of ways. It definitely helps keep me up to date with the latest advances in a wide range of areas in physics and astronomy, which is crucial for me as an interdisciplinary scientist. It also makes me a better communicator, just by giving me a lot of practice explaining things in simpler and more creative ways than I would usually to do within academia. And it helps keep me enthused about my subject. Academia can be a bit hard on the ego sometimes, especially when you feel like you’re not making much progress, but with science communication, there are always enthusiastic people who are excited about what you have to say, and that makes it a lot easier to get through the tougher times.

Why do you think science communication is important?

It’s becoming more and more important for people to be scientifically literate, to make informed decisions in a democratic society. From climate policy to research funding, voters have to make decisions based on their understanding of the latest scientific consensus, and it’s important that they have access to not only the information but also the scientists who are experts in their fields. And that’s not even to mention all the benefits of scientific literacy in an increasingly high-tech society where an understanding of science affects the daily choices people make in their personal consumption and habits. I think it’s hugely valuable to de-mystify the process of science research and give people a direct line to professional scientific practice, so they can make more informed decisions in their daily lives.

What has been your favourite project?

I’ve been really enjoying doing the YouTube astro-chat series “Pint in the Sky” with my colleague, Alan Duffy. It’s super low-budget and all very haphazard and thrown-together, but making videos where we just talk science in a casual way is a lot of fun. We recently took a road trip out to Canberra for a National Science Week event and were lucky enough to get to interview Phil Plait (Bad Astronomer) and Henry Reich (Minute Physics), which was pretty amazing. We’re probably never going to get anywhere near their level of impact, but it was really inspiring to chat with them and other high-profile science communicators about why they do what they do and what kinds of messages work best.

How did the Youtube show “Pint in the Sky” get started?

My colleague Alan Duffy and I attended a one-day workshop run by the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), on the topic of science communication via YouTube. The workshop went through a number of different ideas and techniques for doing sciency YouTube videos, but at some point Alan and I were chatting about it and realized we both had the same idea, that we could do some kind of low-key astro chat video series. We wanted to recreate the kind of casual science chats astronomers have when we gather for drinks at the pub during conferences. So we just decided to try it and see what happened! We’ve gotten a lot of support from CAASTRO, which has made a huge difference.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I have a few things I’m trying to get together, but nothing big on the schedule at the moment. Mostly I’ve been building up my online science communication presence lately, by adding a Facebook page and working on a personal website. And I’m always doing what I can on Twitter, of course!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

* Be patient and keep at it. If you’re trying to build up an audience, that takes time, and getting good at science communication takes practice. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t seem like you’re making much of an impact right away.

* Know your audience. It’s important when you get started to know who you’re trying to reach, and to tailor your message accordingly.

* Let your passion shine through! Your audience is much more likely to get excited if you’re excited about the science and can communicate that passion.* If your outreach is on the Internet, interact with people as much as you can and don’t talk down to them. People can tell if you’re condescending, and it will make them less open to whatever you have to say. Try to keep things simple without dumbing them down. It can be a hard balance, but it’s worth working toward.

You can follow Katie Mack on Twitter at @AstroKatie to see what she’s been up to!

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Speaking to… Jeannie Scott and the Useful Science Initiative

“Sharing science with the people who can make use of it seems the most logical thing to do!”

USI-logo-Jeannie-ScottThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jeannie Scott about the Useful Science Initiative!

Name?

Jeannie Scott

Where are you based?

Oxford, UK.

What field of research are you in?

None! I’ve stopped doing research so I can set up the Useful Science Initiative (www.useful-science.org). Before this, I was a volcanologist.

What is The Useful Science Initiative?

A new non-profit organization that will help geographers and Earth scientists to rewrite their research for non-experts; our publications will be free to download, and will explain both the science itself, and what it means for stakeholders. We will also provide a communications hub where scientists and stakeholders can discuss USI publications and ongoing research projects.

The organization is very young, and still taking shape: the details will be worked out by scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers at our inaugural workshop on 9th December. The workshop is the last stage in a consultation process; we have asked people all over the world what they want from us, and how we can work for them. The response has been fantastic!

Why did you set it up?

Because of the people I met during my PhD field work in Guatemala. They were working so hard to understand their volcanoes, and to keep their towns safe, but they didn’t have access to the science that could help them. I rewrote the relevant papers (including mine) as a book that could be understood by anyone with a high school education, and it worked well – it made the science useful.

It wasn’t easy though. I had no technical or editorial support; I had to do the layout and proof-reading myself. There was no dedicated website where I could publish, and I spent weeks emailing the link to all the potential readers I could think of. The USI will make the whole process much quicker and much easier.

I am also very aware that because I self-published my “for non-experts” book, no-one checked the content. I could have written anything in there – I didn’t, but I could have. So, we will check that all the science in our publications has passed peer-review. Stakeholders will be able to trust what they read.

Why do you think the idea is proving so popular?

I think stakeholders want science to help them make informed decisions; scientists want to make their research available to everyone who can use it; and funding bodies want to maximize the impact of their investment in research. Plus Useful Science is a very simple idea, and simple ideas are always popular!

How will you help the scientists re-write their research?

We’ll give scientists a way to maximize the impact of their research that doesn’t exist right now. They will be able to find out what stakeholders want through our communications hub, where they will also be able to chat to each other about their writing experiences. We’ll provide technical support, because not everyone has publishing software, and our editors will help if there’s a language barrier.

Our website will give scientists a place to publish, where their work will reach a far greater and more varied readership than the average thesis or paper. We’ll also do publicity wherever possible, and encourage readers to engage with scientists/authors through our website.

So, we’ll give scientists incentive, encouragement, practical support, a place to publish, publicity, and a chance to engage with stakeholders and casual readers.

Why do you think there is such little support for this type of writing in academia?

I don’t know! Sharing science with the people who can make use of it seems the most logical thing to do!

I think the time is right for Useful Science though: the technology is available now, Open Access is taking off, and funding bodies are starting to emphasize the importance of impact. We plan to really build momentum for Useful Science by campaigning in universities around the world. The response we have had so far shows that many scientists do support the idea. We just have to tap into that support!

What do you hope the Useful Science Initiative will achieve?

Long-term, I hope that writing Useful Science publications will become a routine and very rewarding part of any natural science research career, and that stakeholders regularly use USI publications to inform their decisions. That might take a while, but I believe it is possible.

Short-term, I hope to get enough funding to build our full website, run our awareness campaign, and reach our target publication rates. It would be nice if we could start paying me a salary too!

Are you going to back to research or will you continue to develop the USI?

I’d like to stick with the USI for now. I have put in a lot of work, and I want to see it through.

What tips do you have for scientists in academia to increase their public engagement directly related to their research and theses?

Support USI! We are only just getting started, so we need all the help we can get. In return, we’ll give scientists and stakeholders a safe online environment to talk, exchange ideas, and plan research projects. It isn’t always easy to engage with your stakeholders or with the general public – it’s often something you have to do in your spare time, rather than as part of your working day. But attitudes are changing, and if there are enough of us, we can help change things a bit faster!

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Speaking to… Suzi Gage

 “Since I work in health sciences, findings if misrepresented in the media could potentially lead to harm. Findings can sometimes be exaggerated or presented without important caveats, which isn’t ideal. A good clear explanation of risks is hard to do, but really important, particularly in terms of health.”

Suzi-gage-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Suzi Gage

Name?

Suzi Gage

Where are you based?

Bristol

Who do you work for?

University of Bristol

What type of science communication do you do?

I blog at the Guardian, but I also do outreach stuff at the University, and I was involved in the ScienceGrrl calendar.

Who is your main audience?

People who read the Guardian online would be my main audience, but also the good folk of twitter, and occasionally people outside of those populations too, if I get the chance. I love getting the opportunity to write for a new audience, only a few weeks ago I wrote for the Telegraph, and the British Science Association blog.

How did you get into it?

In the first year of my PhD, I took part in a scheme called I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here. It involved scientists of all disciplines answering questions from school children across the country. It was so much fun, and so rewarding, that I decided to do more public engagement and communication. So along with a couple of other PhD students in my department I set up a blog, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why do you do it?

First and foremost because I enjoy it!  I also think as most science is publicly funded, we have an obligation to communicate our findings to the people who provide our resources. Scientific articles are often behind paywalls, and even if they’re not, they can be written in pretty dry and impenetrable language. I try and write for an interested lay-person.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I suppose my answer above covers this. Also, since I work in health sciences, findings if misrepresented in the media could potentially lead to harm. Findings can sometimes be exaggerated or presented without important caveats, which isn’t ideal. A good clear explanation of risks is hard to do, but really important, particularly in terms of health.

What do you love about science communication?

I love the questions I get asked. That’s why I’m a Scientist was so inspiring for me. Two weeks of answering the questions of school children really opened my eyes as to what people think science is, and I got the bug from that.

What has been your favourite project?

Probably ResearchFest, which was an event I helped put on in Bristol. I work with the data from the Children of the 90s birth cohort, which is a group of originally 14,000 mothers and their children, who have been followed since pregnancy. It’s a huge resource, and turned 21 years old last year. ResearchFest was a conference for the participants in the study to attend, so they could see what us researchers do with.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m probably going to have to cut back on my science communication projects for the next year, as I’ve just started writing up my PhD, but hopefully I’ll be able to keep some ongoing projects going, like my blog. I’ve also got something else in the pipeline that I’ve been working on for AGES, so watch this space.

Is it difficult to balance the research and science communication lives you lead?

A little, maybe. I do the science communications stuff in my spare time, so maybe it’s my social life that suffers, although I’ve got to meet some awesome people and make great friends through science communication, particularly the people in and involved with the Science Grrl calendar. But yes, it can be very time consuming (and often voluntary), which can be challenging.

Do you feel you need to be careful when communicating your research?

Oh, definitely! Because I work in a field which is directly relevant to people (recreational drug use and mental health) I try and be really careful about the language that I use. I want to be sensitive to people who might be affected by the issues I discuss, and I try not to put any judgement in to the pieces I write, or if I do, make it completely clear what’s research, and what’s opinion. Even so I’ve drawn the ire of certain individuals when I’ve written about standardised packaging of cigarettes, which has led to some nasty things said about me online, and a lot of speculation about my beliefs on various issues (which are for the most part complete fiction). Because I’m often under scrutiny though, this is even more of a reason to choose my words very carefully.

As a scientist, do you think that science communication is encouraged enough?

Hmm, this is a tricky one, because I think it varies hugely. For me, I have had a fabulous mentor who’s really encouraged and supported me right from the offset. This has meant I’ve always felt science communication to be part of being a scientist. I was surprised the first time I spoke to scientists who had been actively discouraged from doing communication activities by their superiors or institutions. I hope this is an attitude that is getting less prevalent. These days

What are the barriers that are stopping scientists to communicate more?

Time is probably the biggest one. Communication activities are usually extra curricular, and rarely funded, so you have to be passionate and willing to give up your free time for nothing to want to seek them out.

Is there a way around them?

More science jobs should include a science communication aspect as standard, so some of your time at work is designated for sci comm. But, of course, researchers already work far beyond the hours they’re paid for, science is very much a vocational career, so in practical terms it would just be one extra thing to do. I don’t really know what a solution would be. Time turners? 😉

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Do it! Join twitter, there’s a whole community of scientists and science communicators who can offer advice and support, and just find something you enjoy doing and do it!

You can follow Suzi on Twitter at @soozaphone, or read her Guardian blog

VoR-science-communication

Speaking to… Voice Of Researchers

VoR-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Suzanne Miller-Delaney about Voice of Researchers.

Why was Voice of Researchers set up?

Voice of the Researchers, or VoR, is a network bridging individual researchers and decision-makers, bringing together researchers and enabling them to take an active role in shaping the European Research Area.

In March 2012, the European Commission (through the EURAXESS portal) launched a call for expressions of interest to take part in a brainstorming session on research careers. Over 400 researchers residing in Europe answered the call and 25 were chosen to travel to Brussels and discuss their experiences. It was following this initial meeting that VoR was born. The 25 researchers went on to form the “multipliers group” of VoR and have spent the 18 months since, developing the network.

How has it grown since then?

VoR does not have a membership as such and is based on a network structure, in which all researchers in Europe can participate by sharing ideas, challenges and proposals, through online portals and social media. The ‘mulitpliers group’ act as enablers, promoting VoR and communicating outputs to decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Since their initial meeting in March 2012, the VoR network has grown substantially.

Members of the multipliers group have attended ESOF 2012 (July 2012, Dublin), Naturejobs (September 2012, London), EURAXESS Links 1st Global Conference (November 2012, Beijing), EU2013 IUA Researchers Careers & Mobility (May 2013, Dublin) and most recently, the Lithuanian Presidency Conference “Invest in Researchers” (Nov 2013, Vilnius).

VoR now has close to 1800 twitter followers (@research_voice) and reaches on average approximately 3400 researchers per month on Facebook.  The VoR website (voice.euraxess.org) was launched in March 2013 and includes an interactive discussion forum.

Why does the area between policy makers and researchers need your help?

EU policy-makers regularly involve European-level stakeholder organisations and individual experts in their work, but there currently exists no communication channel through which to directly engage with individual researchers on a systematic basis. VoR aims to fill this gap by acting as a direct communication channel between researchers, decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders, allowing researchers themselves to determine the most important issues to be addressed.  It is this ‘bottom-up’ ethos in addition to the promotion of direct communication with the policy-level which sets VoR aside.

You are about to host a conference in Brussels, what is it about?

“Raising Researchers’ Voices – Opinions on Jobs, Careers and Rights” will take place on 21-22 November 2013.

In keeping with the VoR’s bottom-up ethos, the conference promises a highly interactive and varied programme of events. Conference participants will include approximately 200 researchers of all ages, nationalities and disciplines, working within the 28 member states of the EU. Hosted by members of the VoR multipliers group, participants will be encouraged to give their opinion on the most contentious issues for research careers – including job instability and the challenges posed by new trends in open access and applied research agendas.

The format of the conference will be a break from the norm, relying heavily on social media and including elevator pitches and ‘ERA Slams’, in which researchers will take to the stage to present their views and ideas on career-related topics. Rather than many panel discussions or lectures, there will be small group discussions by all conference participants and live voting on topics of relevance to researchers. The idea is to identify the biggest issues affecting researchers and their careers in Europe, and to come up with changes the researchers themselves want, delivering them in person to the policy level.

Why is social media such a heavy part of the conference in Brussels?

Social media actively strengthens the connections of the VoR network every day and is a vital aspect of its continued growth.

During the upcoming conference, VoR will reach out beyond the 200 participants in Brussels by posting the discussion live to Twitter, Facebook and on the VoR forum.  Polls taken by conference participants will also be posted online and, at the venue in Brussels, a social wall will stream online comments live to the discussion groups, allowing researchers from all over Europe to take part and make their voice heard!

The “Raising Researchers’ Voices” conference will take place on 21-22 November 2013 in Brussels. Registration for the event is now closed, but readers can keep up to date with conference developments (#vor2013) on Facebook and on Twitter @Research_Voice.