Tag Archives: research


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!


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!


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


Suzi Gage

Where are you based?


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


Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

“Rather ironically, if the tools and software that are available now, if they had been available to me when i was making those decisions, then perhaps I would have, actually gone down a different path”

Laura-Wheeler-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

Laura Wheeler is the new community manager at Digital Science, and is currently getting ready for the SpotOn Conference, which she co-organises with Lou Woodly and Martin Fenner.

In this episode, Laura and I discuss what a community manager really is, how she got into this role, and the dilemma she faced when deciding to leave the world of academia for one of science communication.

“If communicating about your science was what got you into science communication, why not stay as a scientist and communicate your own science?”

This dilemma seems to be a frequent one, and for Laura, it wasn’t easy. She looks back at her younger self and feels that if there had been more digital, software based support for scientists, she may have made a different decision…could this be why she has gone to work with Digital Science? To help those in her position make this decision easier?

For those interested in SpotOn, it starts on the evening of Thursday 7th with a Fringe Event – The Story Collider, hosted by Brian Wecht. The Conference is happening all weekend, and if you couldn’t get tickets no worries, you can watch all of the sessions live and the video archives will remain on the SpotOn site afterwards. You can also follow the Twitter hashtag #solo13 to join in the online conversation.

You can follow Laura on Twitter at @laurawheelers 


Speaking to… Julie Bellingham

“I’m really honoured to play a small part in some massive global endeavours and it’s fun to be able to share that excitement.”

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


Julie Bellingham

Where are you based?

Swindon, UK

Who do you work for?

Science and Technology Facilities Council

What type of science communication do you do?

I communicate the contract opportunities available to industry at a number of large science facilities like CERN. I don’t think it’s what people traditionally think of when they think of science communication, but I have to help industry understand what large science facilities are and get them interested, so there’s a large component of communicating science and hopefully inspiring people to be interested.

Who is your main audience?

Industry and businesses are my main audience, but this covers a huge range of people and knowledge levels. For instance, a company that makes magnets for particle accelerators will already have a good understanding of what particle accelerators do, but providers of language classes or IT manufacturers won’t necessarily have heard of CERN or other facilities.

I have to think about what will interest that individual and then focus on that. With CERN for example, most people are interested to hear that it has an annual procurement budget of around £325M but then I try to tailor my message. When we were trying to find patent lawyers to respond to a market survey, I focussed on the fact that people working at CERN have made a huge number of technology discoveries during their work. The biggest of these is the World Wide Web, but they have also made advances in touch screen technologies and developed particle beams which are used in cancer treatments. When contracts in civil engineering are released, I focus on the fact that CERN has a particle accelerator in a ring which is 27km diameter, straddling the border of France and Switzerland and 100m underground. In addition to its amazing science, CERN is also a major civil engineering accomplishment.

Once I’ve piqued their interest, I end with the ‘wow’ factor that CERN is a worldwide endeavour to understand the origins of the universe. I think that the companies who are working with CERN are genuinely proud and excited to be part of something so special.

How did you get into it?

I did a PhD in physics and joined STFC to work at the ISIS neutron source. I managed a project to coordinate the development of new instrumentation for neutron sources across Europe, so I always had a focus on technology for large facilities. I moved to Swindon to STFC’s head office and when a vacancy for the industry liaison role opened up, I thought it would be really interesting and so I applied.

Why do you do it?

I really enjoy developing new procedures and improving the way things are done. When I started my role, I looked at how to improve the way we communicated with industry and how to engage them and I think that’s shown a real increase in the number of companies who are interested in working with facilities. Over the last three years, the UK has won over £47M worth of contracts. These contracts have benefitted hundreds of companies and it’s great to have played a part in that.

Why do you think science communication is important?

As taxpayers fund science facilities, we have a duty to explain where that money goes and the work that the facilities are doing. Last week I met someone from industry who was quite cynical about why we should fund facilities. I spent a while explaining the benefits both to industry, technology and society as a whole and they left knowing why being involved in these global projects is worthwhile. We need to have that support for science and that only comes through understanding.

What do you love about science communication?

I love the variety of my work and enjoying speaking with a wide range of people. I’m really honoured to play a small part in some massive global endeavours and it’s fun to be able to share that excitement.

What has been your favourite project?

I needed to find companies who would be able to respond to heating and ventilation contracts coming up at CERN. I found a number of suitable companies and spent three days with a team from CERN travelling around the UK to visit industrial sites. One of the companies CERN met has gone on to win £1M worth of work and it’s satisfying to know that I helped to play a part in that.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I don’t have specific projects as such but this is a part of my daily work.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Science communication can be part of many different jobs. It doesn’t have to be public facing or to schools necessarily, which is what I think most people think of when they imagine science communication.

You can follow Julie on Twitter at @julie_bee

Speaking to… Brian Glanz

“Open science is science by everybody for anybody.”

Brian-Glanz-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Brian Glanz

Brian Glanz works for the Open Science Federation, a group in the US that attempts to break down the barriers that stop everyone accessing science.

I met Brian at Mozfest 2013, and took the opportunity to find out how OSF facilitates science communication between scientists and non-scientists to make their work more transparent.

We talk about what open science is, how OSF facilitates it using science communication techniques, and whether it is possible or not.

You can follow Brian on Twitter at @brianglanz or see what he’s up to on his website.


Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell

“We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction!”

Sarah-Bearchall-Science-Communication This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Sarah Bearchell


Dr Sarah Bearchell

Where are you based? 


Who do you work for?

I work with different primary schools on a freelance basis

What type of science communication do you do?

I do workshops, science shows and longer projects designed for specific groups of children. I work with both mainstream pupils and children with Special Educational Needs. I also do some science writing for adults.

Who is your main audience?

Most of my work is with primary school children (age 4-11).

How did you get into it?

Small children are scientists. Even before they can move they are exploring the world by putting things into their mouths. Then, when they move, they poke their fingers into everything. Next a pointing finger appears and is accompanied by a grunt which is their way of asking ‘What is this?’. By the time they can speak they are accomplished Principal Investigators in their own world. The ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions are just a natural progression. If the questions get answers, they will stay curious and keep asking them.  If we ignore them, the curiosity slowly dims.

These observations are based on my own children; Matilda (7), Joe (5) and Archie (4). When my daughter started school it seemed natural to offer the teachers some growing projects (my background is in botany). One year we grew sunflowers and then the class grew a loaf of bread from seed. The children loved the sense of achievement that both of these projects gave them. The school then asked me to become Associate Governor for Science and I also became a STEM Ambassador as a way of formalising this voluntary work.

Why do you do it?

It is just so fantastically rewarding.

In one of my first sessions I had a ten-year-old pupil who was initially unimpressed at having to make paper trees to withstand a ‘hurricane’. However, she listened to my introduction about what happens in nature, incorporated that into her paper tree and built one of the best trees in the whole session.  At the end she said ‘I love it when we don’t do work!’ and was beaming as she left the room.

I also work with a Special Needs school where the children have a huge range of abilities.  We have recently been doing Sensory Science. In one session I froze water into lots of different jelly moulds, bottles and bowls and we mixed these up with hot water bottles and buckets of warm water. Each child explored the activity in their own way. One child liked to stroke the ice as it melted, another liked to catch the ice cubes in a plant pot as the water drained away and a third child was delighted when she was allowed to smash the ice out of a plastic bottle.  We did counting and discussed temperature and sizes all as a natural part of conversation. The feedback from the school has been fantastic; apparently science has always been their worst subject but it is now climbing up the subject list.

How do you tailor science education to special needs children?

I start by going into one of their normal science classes so I can meet the children and teaching staff. It gives me a great insight into how they will react to what I have planned. I need to know how  they will react to things such as loud noises, music, furry objects and different light levels. I need to be sure I can engage them, not scare them! It also gives me clues to their dexterity and concentration spans so I can modify my plans accordingly.

My aim is to get them exploring an activity and using language or signs to describe what is happening. We use all our senses and talk about size, temperature, light and feel. We use numbers and countdowns at every opportunity.

How do you work with special needs children when all of them are so different in their needs?

My Key Stage 1 (age 5-7) SEN classes only have about six children and three or four adults depending on the specific needs of the children. The school staff know which aspect of an activity is most likely to engage each child and generally encourage the child to explore that first. I follow each child’s lead and expand with what I think they are likely to enjoy next.

My method is best explained with an example such as our session on air. We started with some Balloon-CD hovercraft were a huge hit until one child tested them to destruction! Then we moved to blowing up balloons and letting them go again, feeling the air rush out, listening to the sounds and watching them sail through the air. I had also made some sail powered cars which were disappointing because too few of the children had the dexterity to work them, so we just moved on. Next we blew lots of bubbles and chased them round the courtyard. The final activity was the biggest hit – an air rocket. The children were initially worried by it but as soon as their teachers had a go they joined in with the cheering and countdowns to launch. They were great at taking turns and collecting up the rockets. Some of them were able to relate stamping on the launch pad to the height the rocket achieved and even how to aim the rocket either high or far. One child in a wheelchair was delighted to have his carer stamp his front wheel on the launch pad and another child had to be lifted into the air to produce enough force for launch but they all cheered and came back for more. Some of the children were delighted to feel the air from the pump on their faces, but others were not. Each session is a learning opportunity for me too!

Is it sometimes very difficult to communicate with special needs children?

The teachers and support staff know how to communicate with each child. I take their lead and we generally use some basic signs, lots of facial expression and huge amounts of praise for all scientific observations. Their teachers spend part of the session observing the children and noting down their progress so they can monitor it over time.

Most of the children are so excited to have something so different to their normal day that they don’t need much encouragement. The teachers suggested I repeated some of the favourite exercises and we noticed that the children started by repeating what they had before and then expanded into new skills or words. It is so rewarding to watch their confidence and abilities grow.

What has been the most challenging lesson you’ve had with special needs children?

I haven’t really had any yet. The teaching staff have been great at helping each child to get the most from the sessions.

Why do you think science communication is important?

You interviewed one of my ex-tutors, Dr George McGavin, and he said ‘If you can get the fire going in an 8 year old, it will blaze away for the rest of their lives.’ He is so right!  I really want to keep that innate spark of curiosity alight.  It’s so easy to maintain it but so hard to re-ignite when it goes out.

I genuinely believe that we can turn around the decline in scientific subjects by working with younger children. It is hard to convince funders to invest because there is such a long lead-time before any measurable increase in uptake will be seen.  Primary school science is comparable to blue-skies research; there is no immediate profit. I’ve toyed with the expression ‘rainbow-skies funding’ for primary school science but however you describe it, it needs serious consideration.  We need to create a more scientifically literate society, better equipped to question research in a rational fashion. If this happens there should be fewer knee-jerk reactions to scientific reports, especially amongst politicians.

What do you love about science communication?

I get to share my love of science with a wonderfully receptive audience. One of the five-year-olds requested a labcoat in his letter to Father Christmas last year. How cool is that?

What has been your favourite project?

That is a hard question. I love them all!

My favourite project with the children is ‘Ask A Scientist’. They can ask me anything on any STEM+M subject. They write it down and put it in the question box (which looks like my head) where I have a think about it then design a demo to explain it. The questioner becomes The Scientist to explain the answer to their classmates. There are a huge range of questions but we have mixed bogeys, made intestines, used a whole class to demonstrate seismic waves and dressed up as Neanderthals and superheroes.  It can get quite silly but the children and their teachers love it. They remember lots of the information too. I use demonstrations which employ materials from around the home. It needs to be super-accessible so they realise how easy it is to be a scientist (and how much fun it can be). It’s a case of Do Try This At Home (albeit in the garden).

On a different note, I was quite surprised by my own reaction to taking part in Science ShowOff recently. It’s an ‘open mic for all communicators of science’ where you get nine minutes to talk about your subject. Most of my fellow Showoffs talked entertainingly about proper research, we had a song about Pluto (Phil Dooley), Sarah Cosgriff dressed as a sumo wrestler and Lucy Rogers describing what happens to your body in space. I stood up and put a mixture of porridge and coffee into a pair of tights to replicate the intestines and ended with defacation live on stage. It went down pretty well with a Friday night crowd and I was left buzzing for hours!

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

There are two great projects coming up in the autumn.

Harvest Loaf

I have been working with a class of children on a project called ‘Growing A Loaf’. The five and six-year-olds sowed wheat seed in a corner of the playground and watered, weeded and nurtured it to a beautiful crop of strong plants.  We got some interest from BBC Radio 4 Farming Today who came out and recorded with the children, Charlotte Smith was fantastic with them and they all chatted really confidently about their crop.

The story was then picked up by BBC Radio Oxford and BBC South Today television.  The children were recorded during the summer and again as they threshed and winnowed the crop by hand.  South Today also came to Mapledurham Watermill to see the grain being milled.  The children are going to work with Helen Hales, their fabulously talented teaching assistant, to create a wheatsheaf shaped loaf from their flour.  This will be presented to the vicar at the school harvest festival in the village church and South Today will be recording them do it all. The whole story will be broadcast in mid-late October and I can’t wait to see the results.  The children have worked so hard and have amazed everyone by confidently explaining their work to the journalists. It has been an enormous boost for the whole school.

I am also delighted that I have been asked to be a judge at the Stemettes Oxford Hackathon. It’s a free event for girls and women aged 7-21. They will learn how to code and create an infographic from scratch. Details are here.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Most people say you should stick with your research, become a STEM Ambassador and keep practicing your skills. They are absolutely right. It is possible to do it outside research but it is harder unless you network like crazy. My advice would be the same as for researchers; become a STEM Ambassador because you get some training, lots of fantastic support and even suggestions for activities until you get more confident. Remember to listen to feedback and don’t give up!

You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahBearchell or see what she’s up to on her website.

Speaking to… Laurie Winkless


Laurie-Winkless-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laurie Winkless

As the Nobel Prizes are announced this week, I thought it would be a great idea to put this interview up! Laurie Winkless is the editor for Nobel Media.

Having literally only just moved there, she talks about her research background in Physics, how she became interested in science communication, and what she enjoys about where she is now.