“In several countries, research or science is seen as a stand alone activity, and all we have to do is to communicate to other researchers in the same field. Whereas I think in Britain people have really started to open up to the idea that actually we do science for the broader public”
Climate Snack founder Mathew Stiller-Reeve realised quite early on in his science career that his writing wasn’t up to scratch. After receiving negative feedback on his potential publications from peer-reviewers, “I’d been using the passive voice too much and the flow was wrong and I was framing my arguments in the wrong way.” So he decided to take action. But instead of banging his head against a brick wall on his own, he started Climate Snack, and joined forces with Will Ball.
The two of them now run an almost global blogging network for climate scientists to improve their writing skills. But it’s not just about blogging in one place, it’s the community that matters. They peer-review each-others’ work. They learn from each other, they take courses together and improve that way.
“The idea is we start up writing groups in different institutes and universities around the world hopefully, where young and early career scientists can practice their writing and communicate with each other, interact and give feedback to each other.”
And it is open to anyone who wants to learn. Will Ball set up the UK Climate Snack community in July 2013. Since then he’s been pushing it out throughout the UK and running workshops.
As this is a global project, Mat has seen that there is a real difference in how countries view science communication. “In Britain there is a huge amount of really good work thats been going on at the moment to promote this kind of way of thinking and how we communicate our science to different audiences like the general public and policy makers.”
Why is sci comm more popular in the Uk than anywhere else? Mat thinks it is because of a change in attitudes to why we do science. “In several countries, research or science is seen as a stand alone activity, and all we have to do is to communicate to other researchers in the same field. Whereas I think in Britain people have really started to open up to the idea that actually we do science for the broader public, we do science maybe for society, and therefore we have to give something back to society.” Science is also becoming more interdisciplinary, making science communication more challenging.
The main audience of the Climate Snack blogs is climate scientists themselves. Although it may eventually grow into a place for non-climate scientists to read about the research, it’s more about being able to communicate to those within your own community. Climate scientists come from many different backgrounds, some being experts in oceanography, and some in solar physics, two completely different topics with different terminology. “In order for that to be communicated well, it needs to be written in a way so that someone who doesn’t do science, or who is outside of your field would be able to understand, that';s essentially like how we communicate to the public,” says Will.
And it doesn’t matter that they are using a blog as their medium for publication. Mat thinks it’s all about control, and being able to write simpler articles on the blogs. “The techniques we use there, for example using the active voice a little bit more, practicing with parallel structures and sentences or rhythm of sentences or the transitions between paragraphs. All these basic foundational writing techniques I think can both be used in a blog but can also be brought up to the level of scientific articles.”
Blogs also tend to be more rough-and-ready, relaxed and quick, compared to a scientific publication. But that’s not the point. If you can have great writing skills for a blog, you can transfer those to your scientific writing.
So why aren’t these writing skills part of our Higher Education degrees? Is Climate Snack filling this gap? “When you do a degree in physics, you’re there to learn the physics. But if you become a physicist, and you’re doing something thats import to the pubic, then you have a responsibility at some level to communicate what’s going on, and why it’s important to the public,” says Will. So, once you get to the stage where the public is paying for your research, at PhD level, it is at that point that the communication skills should be part of the training.
Mat says that one of the biggest complaints that graduates have about their degrees was that “they weren’t offered courses or any advice about how they should write and how they can communicate.” It is this gap that Climate Snack is trying to fill. But they don’t want it to be a lonely experience. This is a community of people who all want to learn and could help you.
You can follow Climate Snack on Twitter at @climatesnack