Tag Archives: science

Speaking to… David Benque: Communicating Synthetic Biology

David Benque

This feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… David Benque.

David Benque is a research associate in the Design Interactions Group at the Royal College of Art.

One of the subjects he works with is Synthetic Biology, a relatively new scientific field. His work is a type of science communication and aims to get people to question and critically evaluate synthetic biology using objects. It offers a space for the imagination to flow and dialogue to begin.

Useful links: Blueprints for the Unknown

You can have a look at his website, read his blog, or follow him on Twitter at @davidbenque

Speaking to… Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson
Credit University of Aberdeen

A special podcast with Mr Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.

This science communication interview was recorded for the x-change, as part of my work at the British Science Festival 2012 in Aberdeen. So although this wasn’t specifically recorded for Speaking of Science, I think it was still a great opportunity, and a great interview with a humbly, kind and curious man.



Guest post by Samuel Tracey: Science Communication, A matter of life and death

Samuel Tracey, a Science Communication MSc student at Imperial college investigates the importance of science communication when it comes to risk management, especially since last month, six scientists were found guilty of the manslaughter of those who died in the L’Aquila earthquake in 2008. It illustrates that getting the science right is not enough: communicating it is at least as important.

Laquilla-earthquake-science-communicationAlmost as soon as my colleagues and I had started our masters degrees at the Imperial College Science Communication Unit, the topic of science communication itself found itself in the headlines. Six Italian scientists were sentenced to six years in jail not, as some of the papers misreported, for failing to predict an earthquake, but for failures in their communication of the risks to the people of L’Aquila. The case shows how the communication of science can be as important as the science itself. Failure to communicate properly can lead to anger, blame and even death.

In April, 2009, a team of scientists were sent to L’Aquila, Italy, to quell public anxiety caused by two factors: a swarm of seismic tremors in the region that persisted for several months, and the warnings of an amateur scientist who was predicting an earthquake based on his measurements of radon gas, an unproven method for predicting earthquakes. The committee of scientists held a public meeting and a press conference, which the residents of L’Aquila have since claimed left them reassured that there was no threat of an imminent earthquake. Their confidence was misguided; five days later, L’Aquila was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, killing 309 people, injuring more than 1500, destroying 20 000 buildings and temporarily displacing 65 000 people. The scientists, on the other hand, claim that they are being made scapegoats in a tragic situation and hold that they said nothing that the victims of the earthquake should have taken as a reassurance. However, last month a court found the six scientists involved guilty of manslaughter and sentenced each of them to five years in prison.

The Royal Society (RS) and the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) condemned the court’s ruling, arguing that such a decision could lead to scientists being “afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal”. But it should not be thought that their viewpoint represents that of all scientists. Several scientists from the fields of seismology and risk management have stated publicly that the Italian scientists deserve some kind of sanctions even if not prison sentences.

I recently went to a Nature Live lecture at the National History Museum, where David Alexander, professor of risk and disaster management at UCL, London, spoke about the case. His words stood in stark contrast to those of the RS and NAS and came from one with much more knowledge of the situation: he knows at least some of the convicted scientists personally; he has visited L’Aquila on several occasions, himself having a home nearby. He has examined all the seismological data from the lead up to the fatal earthquake as well as studying, in detail, all the statements made by the scientists to the public prior to the earthquake. He strongly criticised the scientific committee for being so categorical in their reassurances, making statements such as “there will be no earthquake”. Such statements, he said, were not justified by the data, nor the precedent of earthquakes in the region and they ignored the risk posed by the age and fragility of the buildings in L’Aquila. Professor Alexander went on to describe the scientists’ behaviour as “arrogant, irresponsible and not justified on the basis of the scientific data”, and said that he “doesn’t feel a great deal of sympathy” for the convicted scientists, although he qualified the last statement with his belief that he expects the jail sentences to be revoked upon appeal. But he was clear that he believes they deserve some kind of sanctions.

When one sees that the communication of science to a non-expert public can be a matter of life and death, one can recognise why Professor Alexander might be so harsh in his condemnations. It is not enough for scientists to say that they understand risk and uncertainty in different ways to the public. It is their responsibility to convey those differences so that the public can make an informed choice. If scientists fail to do this, then their words, as has been shown, could cause more harm than good. The alternative, silence, is not an option: it could result in harm and even death. So the only option is for scientists to realise the importance of communication. They must know their audiences’ abilities and needs; they must learn clarity of explanation. Those given the responsibility for assessing and managing risk must learn the meaning of the word “responsibility”. Perhaps prison sentences are too harsh, but whether scientists should be held legally responsible for failures of communication misses the point: they have a moral responsibility.

Scientists must learn from L’Aquila, but they need not be afraid, as the RS and NAS suggest. They merely need to realise that their words carry weight; they are, rightly, seen as authoritative. Their words result in actions and those actions can save lives or end them. So scientists can no longer hold the view that data speaks for itself: they must be the spokesmen for the data and what they say and how they say it matters as much as the facts themselves.

Wendy Sadler

Speaking to…Wendy Sadler

“I had found people had a bad attitude to my choice of degree subject and liked the idea of trying to do something about that.”

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

Wendy Sadler
Wendy Sadler


Wendy Sadler

Who do you work for?

I run my own science communication social enterprise, science made simple. I also work for Cardiff University and we are a spinout company based there with regional staff across the UK

What type of science communication do you do?

I personally don’t get to do as much direct communication as I used to but over the years I have done everything from Bubbles shows to nurseries to debate events with the WI and a TEDx event. Most of my time is now spent training researchers, developing my presenting team and managing the business but I still get to dabble presenting about my love of science and music, and after-dinner science speaking with a difference!

Who is your main audience?

science made simple works with around 70,000 people each year and around two thirds of those are 11-16 year olds. The other third is made up of primary schools and family audiences at festivals. We also deliver training to universities and researchers in partnership with Graphic Science as The Training Group and through that we reach around 300 people each year. I also got to present some science on ITV’s Alan Titchmarsh show last year with viewing figures of over 1 million per programme which was quite exciting!

How did you get into it?

I studied Physics and Music at Cardiff University and thought I wanted to be a sound engineer, then I got a casual job at Techniquest science centre and loved what they were trying to do in changing the perception of physics. I had found people had a bad attitude to my choice of degree subject and liked the idea of trying to do something about that. I also felt it was a way of combining my interest in creative arts, science and performance. I then worked my way up at Techniquest, spent a year travelling science centres in Australia, a year being the IOP schools lecturer and then set up on my own back in 2002. We’ve grown steadily over 10 years and now employ 13 people and reached over 250,000 people.

Why do you do it?

I want to share my passion for science and leave some legacy of changing people’s perception that science is only for scientists who are clever enough to study it a high level. People are inherently quite scared of science and I want people to rediscover that childish curiosity about the world around us and the beauty of how it all works. I love the emotional connection you can make with an audience in a live performance and I know our presenters are making a difference every day they are out delivering shows in schools. There is a buzz in a live performance and the ultimate flexibility in the level of information given that – with the right presenter – can be hugely effective.

What do you love about your job?

Working with people who are passionate about making a difference and seeing the amazingly creative ideas we can generate as a team to translate complex ideas into engaging performances.

What has been your favourite project?

I still get thrills when I see our theatre project, ‘visualise’ – it began as a mad idea in 2005 about trying to do a science show with no words that wouldn’t be a cringe-makingly bad mime show. The show has evolved over 7 years of development and various guest directors and there is still so much we’d like to do with it. But when I see it with an audience gasping at the beauty and curiosity of science and coming away with questions and desire to find out more I feel very proud to have been part of it. When it was short-listed for a theatre award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the first year we took it there, I was giddy with excitement!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Get some experience and try and get video footage of yourself presenting something – ideally to a real audience but even just to camera. Don’t try and be like any other presenter, find your natural style and then take every opportunity you can to learn from people beyond our field who are experts at what we’re trying to achieve (ie audience engagement). Comedians, magicians, performers all have years of experience that we need to learn from and bring into the science communication sector. Look broader for inspiration and try and find a niche that you excel at….oh, and if you are a great presenter – send us your CV as we’re always talent hunting!

You can follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyjsadler and read her blogs here


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?


Guest post: Reporting on science vs religion

Rory Fenton, a physicist, humanist, and budding science communicator has written for the Guardian and was shortlisted for Amnesty International’s Student Human Rights Reporter of the Year 2011. Here gives his ideas of how best to go about the science vs religion debate.

3978414091_a12244faff_mI’ve ended up writing quite a bit about the science/ religion question over the last few years- mostly because my own view kept changing. I’ve gone from conservative Catholic then to bat-shit-crazy atheist now, my metaphorical needle head-banging its way along the science-religion compass in a flurry of self-contradiction.

But along the way I’ve picked up some ideas about how to actually report on the debate in the first place. I suffered, dear reader, so you don’t have to.

The most important thing I can say about the “Can you be religious and a scientist?” debate is that it’s REALLY, REALLY BORING. I don’t think I can stress that enough. It’s boring because the answer is evident- yes, yes you can be. There are too many religious scientists like Robert Winston for anyone to say otherwise. Likewise asking, “Does science disprove God”, “Is science just a form of religion” and so on. The attention grabbing topics tend to result in heading banging articles. Much more interesting are the more nuanced questions- questions that aren’t so much designed to provoke wild debate as just interesting thoughts. Try asking an atheist scientist what questions she doesn’t think science can answer. Now that can be an interesting discussion. How about asking a religious thinker what they think they can learn from the scientific method. Getting people to reflect on what they believe rather than attack what others believe is more likely to lead to an interesting piece. After all, people should know more abut their own beliefs.

But maybe I’m wrong. Could just going for the Big Questions and bashing heads together produce interesting articles? Let me know your thoughts!