Speaking to… Mike Bruton

“What we encourage them to do is to take this knowledge and their enthusiasm home….do a dissection at home on the lounge carpet!”

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

At the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Mike Bruton, the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre.

In this interview with Speaking of Science, Mike talks about the work shop he is running at the festival called What’s Inside: exploring the insides of marine animals.

This fairly unknown world has been at the heart of Mike’s research for the last 40 years, and he hopes that it will fascinate the children at the workshop, especially some of the surprises they find inside!

We also talk about the Bahrain Science Centre that Mike has helped develop over the last two years. Having been fortunate enough to work with MTE Studios, working in science centres in the middle east for many years, Mike has the know-how to set one up in this culture. But moving there full-time was a bit of a shock.

As with any projects that are being set up from square one, there are always issues and kinks that need to be explored and ironed out. So Mike tells me about some of the challenges of setting up the Bahrein Science Centre, as well as the joys.

It’s interesting listening to Mike talk about what it takes to make a successful science centre. It’s all about making sure that the centre offers things that the audience want, especially as they are coming to you out of choice.

One of the other exciting things that Mike has been involved with is the Science Centre World Conferences (held every 3 years), and that he chaired the 6th one in Cape Town in 2011. Over 400 people from 70 countries converged onto Cape Town, focussing on Science Across Cultures: adjusting the way science is taught depending on the culture of where you are teaching, and the importance of indigenous knowledge.

this links directly to some of Mike’s research, as he has been to some more isolated areas on the planet, where he has been learning about the inventions of indigenous people the world over. What he finds fascinating about them is how they make use of certain properties of the world around us, and then how that is transferred into the western world.


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… Nicola Shepherd

“In a mall there’s shops and what-not, and then there’s these weird bikes and these crazy people in brightly coloured lab coats, but they are still equally excited.”

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

The Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013 is based at two main locations: one half in a big blue cross-shaped tent on Yas Island, and the other on the Corniche – a large stretch of beach in the main city centre.

Nicola Shepherd is one member of the Busking Bikes team that takes the Science Festival beyond these locations, to people in other areas of Abu Dhabi.

In this podcast, Nicola Shepherd and I talk about the busking bikes, the reactions that people have to the busks, she shows me a demo and she tells me how she got into this international busking life.

The ideas behind science busking is to try and get people to see everyday things in a different way. To get them to explore everyday life from a science point-of-view.

Children are children – everywhere and anywhere they will react the same to a demonstration, according to Nicola. The interesting reactions come from parents.

Parents are often taking their children to events to entertain them, but it is probably surprising to them when they realise they are being entertained too.

Their reactions also vary depending on where they are being entertained: when they bring their children to a science festival, they are ready and prepared for it. In a shopping mall or waterworld, these weird buskers in crazy lab coats are encroaching their space. But even so, the ability for parents to become children again is what Nicola finds fascinating.

There are also differences between busking here and at home: at home, people are used seeing people being silly on the street. Over here, it isnt part of the culture to do things on the streets, but yet they still seem to take to it.

We also discuss Nicola’s trip to Bangalore in India. This was a unique experience; a community experience where the buskers were really well received.

And how did she get to Bangalore and Abu Dhabi as a science busker? Her background is actually in performing arts.

Finally, Nicola shows me how you can put a kebab stick through a balloon, without it bursting!


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… Jem Stansfield

“When I was a little kid…like four or five years old, I would tell people “One day, I’m going to be a professor of inventions” ….and then for the next kind of 15 years after that I wanted to be a professional footballer.”

Jem-stansfield-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jem Stansfield from BBC Bang Goes The Theory

In this podcast, recorded at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013, Jem Stansfield and I talk about his show here, and how there is an incredible amount of story telling when it comes to designing a demonstration.

Ever designed a demonstration? Or even just tinkered in your shed to make something? Jem Stansfield, currently one of the presenters on BBC Bang Goes The Theory, does this for a living.

Making things is what Jem does. Starting out working backstage on Scrapheap Challenge, he has built a plethora of things: cars fueled by coffee, a jet-pack to propel him all the way around a swing, a giant super-sonic vortex canon, and many more wonderful things!

Just like science, there is a method that Jem uses to build his demos: think first, talk about it, build rough prototypes to test your thinking and then scale up. And this is what he tries to bring to the audience in his shows.

Jem is unusual however, in that he tries to use the internet as little as possible when it comes to researching his ideas. He uses people instead. After coming up with an idea, and sometimes having thought about it for a year, he will trial the idea on his friends, and see what it is about the idea that catches their imagination.

Sometimes, it is even a misheard concept that ends up becoming the final model.

With a background in aeronautical engineering, Jem has an incredible trust in maths. So once the ideas have been trialled on people, he starts doing calculations. Sometimes, he then takes his ideas to researchers around the world: It is these opportunities to visit some of the greatest minds for TV shows that keeps him in the business.

But unfortunately, he is not always able to. When working in TV, there are very tight deadlines. Sometimes, Jem only has one day to design, test and build something in 1 day. He build an iceboat for a TV show, and spend 3 100hour weeks working full time on it.

But even he knows that there is only so much maths you can do to design the demo, but it’s also about plucking up the courage to test it too!

We also talk about how Jem first got into this industry, and his first introduction to presenting TV shows by looking at the development of TV shows.

One of my favourite parts of this interview (starts at 14:45) is Jem’s perspective on maths. He was good at maths, but he also found it rather hollow. He said that you could

“circumvent understanding just through the use of algebra.” 

During his final year, Jem was looking at how satellites would be able to withstand small meteor impacts. He ended up working with the technicians that helped build his models. And he found that they knew more about engineering and building than the lecturers who were teaching him.

“It was that physical intuition, that understanding of what those numbers really mean in reality. That is what humans are about.” 

It is having that hands-on experience, and the trust that these people have in their senses of how things work that Jem fell in love with.

And the rest is history.

I really enjoyed meeting Jem Stansfield – I hope you enjoy this chat.

“Never see things for what they are. See things for what they could be, if you gave it a different life.”

Image credit: Peter Wright


Speaking to… Voice Of Researchers

VoR-science-communicationThis is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Suzanne Miller-Delaney about Voice of Researchers.

Why was Voice of Researchers set up?

Voice of the Researchers, or VoR, is a network bridging individual researchers and decision-makers, bringing together researchers and enabling them to take an active role in shaping the European Research Area.

In March 2012, the European Commission (through the EURAXESS portal) launched a call for expressions of interest to take part in a brainstorming session on research careers. Over 400 researchers residing in Europe answered the call and 25 were chosen to travel to Brussels and discuss their experiences. It was following this initial meeting that VoR was born. The 25 researchers went on to form the “multipliers group” of VoR and have spent the 18 months since, developing the network.

How has it grown since then?

VoR does not have a membership as such and is based on a network structure, in which all researchers in Europe can participate by sharing ideas, challenges and proposals, through online portals and social media. The ‘mulitpliers group’ act as enablers, promoting VoR and communicating outputs to decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Since their initial meeting in March 2012, the VoR network has grown substantially.

Members of the multipliers group have attended ESOF 2012 (July 2012, Dublin), Naturejobs (September 2012, London), EURAXESS Links 1st Global Conference (November 2012, Beijing), EU2013 IUA Researchers Careers & Mobility (May 2013, Dublin) and most recently, the Lithuanian Presidency Conference “Invest in Researchers” (Nov 2013, Vilnius).

VoR now has close to 1800 twitter followers (@research_voice) and reaches on average approximately 3400 researchers per month on Facebook.  The VoR website (voice.euraxess.org) was launched in March 2013 and includes an interactive discussion forum.

Why does the area between policy makers and researchers need your help?

EU policy-makers regularly involve European-level stakeholder organisations and individual experts in their work, but there currently exists no communication channel through which to directly engage with individual researchers on a systematic basis. VoR aims to fill this gap by acting as a direct communication channel between researchers, decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders, allowing researchers themselves to determine the most important issues to be addressed.  It is this ‘bottom-up’ ethos in addition to the promotion of direct communication with the policy-level which sets VoR aside.

You are about to host a conference in Brussels, what is it about?

“Raising Researchers’ Voices – Opinions on Jobs, Careers and Rights” will take place on 21-22 November 2013.

In keeping with the VoR’s bottom-up ethos, the conference promises a highly interactive and varied programme of events. Conference participants will include approximately 200 researchers of all ages, nationalities and disciplines, working within the 28 member states of the EU. Hosted by members of the VoR multipliers group, participants will be encouraged to give their opinion on the most contentious issues for research careers – including job instability and the challenges posed by new trends in open access and applied research agendas.

The format of the conference will be a break from the norm, relying heavily on social media and including elevator pitches and ‘ERA Slams’, in which researchers will take to the stage to present their views and ideas on career-related topics. Rather than many panel discussions or lectures, there will be small group discussions by all conference participants and live voting on topics of relevance to researchers. The idea is to identify the biggest issues affecting researchers and their careers in Europe, and to come up with changes the researchers themselves want, delivering them in person to the policy level.

Why is social media such a heavy part of the conference in Brussels?

Social media actively strengthens the connections of the VoR network every day and is a vital aspect of its continued growth.

During the upcoming conference, VoR will reach out beyond the 200 participants in Brussels by posting the discussion live to Twitter, Facebook and on the VoR forum.  Polls taken by conference participants will also be posted online and, at the venue in Brussels, a social wall will stream online comments live to the discussion groups, allowing researchers from all over Europe to take part and make their voice heard!

The “Raising Researchers’ Voices” conference will take place on 21-22 November 2013 in Brussels. Registration for the event is now closed, but readers can keep up to date with conference developments (#vor2013) on Facebook and on Twitter @Research_Voice.

Speaking to… James Piercy

“I got a standing ovation from a group of people who I hugely respect. And afterwards I thought, I should do more of this because it’s really helped me. And I thought, maybe it could help other people, help understand.”

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

James Piercy, from science made simple, has been doing science shows for more than an decade, and I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival.

James likes to explore everyday things that we come across all the time, but he tries to get his audiences to look at them. To see what they really are and why they are like that. His first ever science show did exactly this with bubbles – how do they form, why do they have pretty colours? His show at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013 takes this to the next level.

A few years ago, James was involved in a  car accident, and unfortunately suffered serious damage to his brain. After being off work for 6months, James plucked up the courage to face his colleauges at the BIG Conference of 2011, and told them all what happened to him.

This talk was emotional, tough, and yet somehow helped him in his recovery. By talking to people he respected, he found that he was able to deal with things better. Now, James talks about his accident to all sorts of audiences – from clinicians, to children, to other patients who have suffered similar things.

Finally, James and I talk about the science communication training he does with scientists and industry specialists. His favourite students are those that come with a sceptical view of science communication, and somehow, during his workshop, they realise that what he is teaching them is a valuable and important thing.

You can follow James Piercy on Twitter at @thepiercy