Guest blog: Latha Ramakrishnan, of Imperial College London, reports on a recent media workshop for young scientists.
What does it mean to “Stand up for Science”?
As a postdoctoral scientist, my hours are filled designing and performing experiments, reading literature, applying for grants and parental duties. So it’s hard to spare time to seriously consider the scientific issues that often haunt my mind
Consider the claims we see on products every day, such as the various cosmetic products labelled with complex biological components like pro-vitamin B5 (healthy hair/skin) or Coenzyme-Q10 (anti-aging). Being a biologist I have a tough time in the lab trying to keep my samples “bioactive”. It often means they have to come and go from a -20oC freezer or be housed in a -80oC ultra freezer, with liquid nitrogen (-196oC) or dry ice (frozen CO2).
So how are these advertised biologicals so stable in commercial products? In what concentration are they present (units are important in science, you see)? How do they survive our harsh handling in our lay life? Do we even have the receptors/transport proteins to absorb such externally applied stuff? That’s a long list of questions…
Should we bother with these questions? The answer is a resounding yes, as I found out recently after attending an eye-opening media workshop organised by Sense About Science and supported by the Biochemical Society. The workshop is part of Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science network.
I used to assume that it was not my responsibility to question such apparent scientific discrepancies as I am at a very junior level of my career to do so. But, to my pleasant surprise, most of the delegates and the panellists who attended the workshop weren’t grey-haired either.
Many claims we come across during our everyday life are made with vague scientific foundations. Due to the commercial and political interests linked with such claims, it is vital that the public and the scientific community in particular stand up for science.
Sense About Science’s Ask for Evidence is an ongoing campaign, where we can dig deep into such claims. We can make the person/company making such claims more accountable and ask them to clarify if their conclusion(s) were drawn after rigorous peer-review. The public can help by asking more questions on issues they are worried about. The scientific community can help by answering some of these questions and sharing their expertise in a particular subject “for or against” a particular claim.
Sense about Science’s media workshop provided some great tips on how we can achieve this. The workshop highlighted the pressures journalists are under. Journalists want stories that will interest their target audience. They have limited time to write them, let alone any time to undertake proper research. They must rely on experts and often the scientific quotes get partially or totally distorted by the time it is broadcast.
Such being the case, instead of blaming it all on the media, the workshop provided tips on how scientists could maximise the impact of a brief media encounter. Crucial take-home messages were to rehearse three simple but key points, in-perspective for lay audience and speak about it even if the reporter asked something else. That way one can make sure that the public gets to hear new scientific findings interpreted in context and not a sensational story spiced-up from a nervous interview.
I would encourage all early career researchers to join the Voice of Young Science network and if possible, attend one of their media workshops.
And for all scientists, early career or otherwise, the next time you read something in a newspaper or hear something on TV that makes you utter “hang on a minute, that doesn’t sound right”, please, without further hesitation: Stand up for science and ask for the evidence!