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Roland Jackson

Speaking to… Roland Jackson

“understand your values and motivations, be true to them and honest about them”

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

Roland Jackson


Roland Jackson

Who do you work for?

I’m CEO of the British Science Association until 31 March 2013, and also Executive Chair of Sciencewise.

What type of science communication do you do?

In many ways I don’t do much directly, but I’m privileged to be involved in one way or another in a wide variety of types, given my day job. I also chair BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel which gives a great insight into how the research community thinks about public engagement in all its guises.

Who is your main audience?

I try hard not to think in terms of audiences; that way lies one-way transmission modes and the standard deficit model. ‘Participants’ is much better. Not that these straight dissemination or inspiring modes of science communication aren’t valid – they most certainly are – but they are not where my interests lie, and they lull people into thinking that there are no other ways of thinking about how to develop socially connected science and technology.

How did you get into it?

Initially through teaching undergraduates when I was doing a doctorate. Then into science teaching and curriculum development; into ICI running a science-based company’s interactions with the education system; into the Science Museum as Head of Education and eventually as Head of Museum and then to the British Science Association. It looks much more logical in retrospect than it appeared at the time.

Why do you do it?

Because I think it is really important that developments in science and technology go with the grain of wider public values, and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to work towards that end.

What do you love about science communication?

The variety of different purposes and agendas which motivate people, and the sheer breadth both of the sciences and the associated issues that I get involved with. Most people are also extremely constructive, generous and friendly, though there are a few exceptions.

What has been your favourite project?

That is an almost impossible question to answer, so I‘ll give two.

In the science education field it would have to be CREST (the UK’s scheme for supporting student-led project work in science and technology) and the associated National Science & Engineering Competition. I have spent my time since my first year of teaching in a comprehensive school trying to subvert the science education curriculum and attempting to develop ways of offering young people a vision of science as a creative and open activity. I still believe we should teach science far more like we teach literature, the arts or music.

In the public engagement and science policy field it is Sciencewise, and the challenge of finding practical and useful ways of bringing more deliberative public discussion to the heart of policy-making involving science and technology.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

I’m excited about continuing with Sciencewise as I leave the British Science Association; it’s a very interesting and somewhat challenging time to be advocating public dialogue in the broader context of open policy making. Also I’m very interesting in championing different aspects of citizen science (crowdsourcing and beyond), which I hope to have some scope to do, particularly through the Research Councils. And I’ll be doing some research, based at the Royal Institution as a Visiting Fellow with Frank James, on that outstanding 19th century scientist and science communicator John Tyndall, linked to the international Tyndall Correspondence project.

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

The same as for any area of life; understand your values and motivations, be true to them and honest about them. In a practical sense, there are many routes in, from MSc courses to occasional volunteering to the sort of entry roles that organisations like the British Science Association offer from time to time, though is a field many want to enter at the moment.

You can follow Roland on Twitter at @Roland_Jackson


Guest post by Gina Maffey: Same demands, different disciplines

Gina Maffey is a PhD student in Applied Ecology at the University of Aberdeen. Among other things she talks about deer a lot. If you like deer, and other things, you can find her @ginazoo on twitter. She who has recently completed a Media Fellowship with the British Science Association and this post she tells us about the similarities she discovered between science and the media.

A_stack_of_newspapers“Why are you applying for a British Science Association media fellowship?”

This was one of the questions that was on the media fellowship application form, and the one that I felt most prepared to answer. “Science communication is a vital part of the research process.” “It will help further my own PhD.” “I want to get a true understanding of how ‘the other side’ works.” I still stand by the first two of these statements. However, ‘the other side’, may not be a phrase that I continue to use in the future.

For six weeks this summer I spent my time at the BBC in Birmingham with Countryfile, Costing the Earth and Farming Today. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I would happily repeat. The fellowships are designed to help bridge the communication gap between journalists and scientists facilitating a better relationship between the two disciplines. There are a lot of things that have already been said of the differences between science and the media, and there has been much work done by the Science Media Centre to improve links and dialogue across the two. For me it was the three similarities that I found in both science and the media that were more surprising.

Money, time and audience. Research and filming are both restricted by money. If you haven’t got the funding a research project can’t go ahead and a film can’t be recorded, no matter how interesting you think it is. Time is also a major limiting factor. The time required to put a project together, the time to get the right people involved. Science and the media just work on slightly different scales. And finally, audience. If you’re not making pieces that engage with people, if you’re not conducting research that research councils are interested in it’s difficult to be sustainable. In short, it’s difficult to do anything if no one is listening.

If, however, the media do start listening it’s important to remember that the media is made up of people too. Yes, some can be intimidating and a minor few might be out to trip you up, but the majority are friendly, polite and inquisitive people (just maybe a little time pressured). At the end of the day it’s a conversation that one of you is going to learn something from. And, I’d ask, how is that any different from Science?