Tag Archives: Science writing

Speaking to… James Randerson

“If you’re going to set up a blog, there is a time commitment to that, to make a go of it you need to give it some energy, thought and time… So you need to think through before you do it, what are you trying to achieve through it?”

James Randerson
Image courtesy of The Guardian

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… James Randerson

James Randerson is the Assistant National News Editor at the Guardian, but yesterday he was the man co-ordinating the science blogging masterclass at the Guardian.

The day included sessions from James Randerson himself (about the rules of science communication and when to break them), Jon Butterworth (about blogging as an academic), Suzi Gage (blogging the evidence) and Dean Burnett (how to be objective, topical and funny).

Together, they gave us a run-down of their science blogging experience, including some top tips and cautionary tales. Continue reading

Speaking to… Climate Snack

“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 SnackThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Will Ball and Mat Stiller-Reeve from Climate Snack

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. Continue reading

jason-g-goldman-science-communication

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.

Suzi-gage-science-communication

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

Becky-Brooks-Science-communication

Speaking to… Becky Brooks

“people always ask interesting questions that make me think about the research in a different way. Sometimes scientists get tunnel vision with their research and I think it’s good to talk to the public about it.”

Becky-Brooks-Science-communication
Becky Brooks

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Becky Brooks

Name?

Becky Brooks

Where are you based?

Bristol, UK

Who do you work for?

I’m a final year PhD student in Biochemistry at the University of Bristol. I work on wound healing at the cell level.

What type of science communication do you do?

I do a mixture. I’ve organised and helped with science workshops in schools, given talks at events, volunteered at festivals, and more recently I’ve been writing for a science blog I set up with a fellow scientist, Emily Coyte.

Who is your main audience?

Everyone and anyone – it depends what I’m doing, and I like to present to a variety of audiences. The blog is aimed at the general public, at those with an interest in science. This year I gave a talk on my research at an event called Skirting Science which was aimed at girls aged 13-14.

How did you get into it?

It all started with becoming a STEM Ambassador through STEMNET – this is a volunteering scheme that links teachers to scientists, which has provided me with endless opportunities to go and speak to children and adults alike about my research. From there it just snowballed – I started out by helping at local science festivals on stalls, and before long I was volunteering for more and more school events and national festivals. Now science communication is a real passion of mine.

Why do you do it?

Because I get excited by science and science communication is a great outlet for that. I just want to tell everyone about it.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I think that science in the real world can be very different to how you learn it at school – I want to show people the relevance of what they learn, and also tell them what it’s actually like to be in science. It’s also important for my work, as people always ask interesting questions that make me think about the research in a different way. Sometimes scientists get tunnel vision with their research and I think it’s good to talk to the public about it.

What do you love about science communication?

That genuine look of fascination that people get, even if you’ve only managed to get it out of one person. A couple of years ago I was volunteering on a stall at a science festival held in one of the shopping centres here in Bristol. I was showing some movies of human cells moving around, and someone who was just passing by with shopping bags suddenly did a double take and came over to talk to me about it. We ended up talking for half an hour about cells!

What has been your favourite project?

That’s a tricky one to answer – I’ve enjoyed all of them for different reasons. I really loved helping out with a workshop myself and some colleagues took to the British Science Festival last year. The theme of it straddled science and art. Secondary school children had some microscope slides of human organs to look at under the microscope, and we asked them to draw what they saw using whatever they wanted – crayons, paint, and collage, whatever. The idea was to do something creative while learning about the body, which in the end seemed to work really well.

I’ve also really enjoyed writing for the blog – whenever I get inspired by something I can just sit down and research and write about it for hours.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Other than the blog, nothing solid at the moment (very open to suggestions though!).

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Grab every opportunity, and network as much as you can, as you’ll learn so much from those that already do it. It’s a continuous learning process; I don’t think anyone is good at it straight away and it takes practise.

Don’t underestimate how useful it is helping out behind the scenes of events too. I probably learned the most from spending a week helping out at Cheltenham Science Festival as a general volunteer. I got to do a bit of everything, from moving furniture to helping out with the tech for events, but I also really got a feel for how those types of events are run and got to meet a lot of the speakers, who were willing to chat about their experiences. Above all, it was a lot of fun.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone – one of the most useful things I did recently was performing at Science Showoff – an open-mic night for science communicators that you can sign up to do. It was frightening just putting myself out there like that, but it gave me a real confidence boost.

Also, think about using social media such as Twitter to network. A lot of opportunities for me recently have come from there.

You can follow Becky on Twitter at @Becky_Brooks6 or see what she’s up to on her website.