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