“I’m one of those people that loves an audience. The bigger the better. And I also quite like science. Speaking more specifically as a sociologist of science, I’m reacting against the idea that science communication should involve listening only to scientists and translating their work for public consumption.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Oliver Marsh
Where are you based?
University College London
Who do you work for?
In science communication I have precisely zero employers or overlords, and the pay to match.
What type of science communication do you do?
I talk about the bits of science that overlap with social and political issues, mostly through (semi-)humorous blog posts and stand-up comedy.
Who is your main audience?
For stand-up, a wide variety of people who share a sufficient affection for science to come and hear people make jokes about it – which seems (on purely anecdotal evidence) to be mostly students and researchers. For the blog, well, I’d love to know. At the moment I can limit it to ‘people with internet’.
How did you get into it?
I originally took a broad undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences, always intending to go into science communication. While flitting my way through my degree I realized I was considerably better at the bits involving science-society relationships than the bits involving labs and hypotheses and maths. So I ended up doing a masters degree in History and Philosophy of Science and a PhD in Sociology of Science, and my communication ambitions changed accordingly. The advantage is that my hobby now ties into my research and vice-versa (I use ‘advantage’ in a very broad, double-edged, two-faced sense here).
Why do you do it?
I’m one of those people that loves an audience. The bigger the better. And I also quite like science. Speaking more specifically as a sociologist of science, I’m reacting against the idea that science communication should involve listening only to scientists and translating their work for public consumption. If the public are really to ‘understand’ how science works (and especially how science can affect them) then they need a broader picture from other commentators, and also to understand the nuances of things like expertise, risk, and modernity. Sociologists know rather a lot about this stuff, but they tend to talk in rather complicated terms of ‘power structures’ or ‘reflexivity’ or similar. So they need a translator too. And I find that quite fun.
Why do you think science communication is important?
For pretty much all the standard reasons: to encourage young people (especially from under-represented demographics) to go into science, to allow busy people to more easily fill gaps in their knowledge, to help people be more informed about living life in a science-heavy world, to tackle misinformation and annoying stereotypes, and so on. But those tend to focus on the ‘science’ side of the coin. I also think it’s important to draw out the many possible ideas of ‘communication’, and create situations where science-based conversations can happen between a wide array of people. Science as an institution can be remarkably good at ignoring or sidelining voices which aren’t sufficiently ‘scientific’. Considering the impact science has on everyone, I’d argue that proper conversation needs to replace different camps shouting past each other. If climate change sceptics won’t believe the data, don’t just direct them to more data.
What do you love about science communication?
It’s full to bursting of the most interesting conversations. I might go to a stand-up show to perform my material about media reportage of science, but I’ll leave having listened to seven or so other sets on anything from nanoparticles to sanitation in Africa. The line between ‘communicator’ and ‘audience’ can be wonderfully blurry.
What has been your favourite project?
My blog SidewaysLookAtScience has become a major part of my life, somewhat like raising an attention-seeking and overly verbose child. Volunteering at the Cambridge Science Festival was also a joy, I’ve rarely seen such a build-up of concentrated enthusiasm in one place. The nice thing about those sorts of public engagement is you get to encounter the emotional response of an audience much more than when there’s an internet standing between you and them.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I’m just starting work on two short plays about the genesis of Einstein’s relativity theories and Schrödinger’s take on quantum mechanics. The idea is to use physical theatre to try and illustrate the development of their theories, alongside more dialogue-based scenes to show how those theories were part of their personal life stories and the historical period they lived in. Also featuring jokes, hopefully. With any luck they’ll be trialled somewhere in London by mid-2014 and be ready for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
It’s becoming a really huge and diverse field, so have a think about your specific skills beyond the broad ‘I’m personable and like science’. Do you have a flair for the visual (perhaps film work or similar), is your writing more suited to page or stage, that sort of stuff. Keep practising whatever form of communication you’re interested in, it’s a skill and must be developed and maintained accordingly. Also get involved with any projects or groups you can, whether a local science museum or a particular blog network, and do that as early as possible (like, now). And network lots. Every Twitter interaction or pub meet is a potential science communication project just waiting to happen. And, often enough, quite fun too.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter at @Sidewaysscience