“Sharing science with the people who can make use of it seems the most logical thing to do!”
This 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!
Where are you based?
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!