Empowering early career researchers to speak up

By Gabriele Butkute, POLICY ASSISTANT

Members at SAS workshop
From left: Brooke Lumicisi, Jake Howden, Esther Odekunle and Emily Baldwin.

Public engagement is assessed within the Research Excellence Framework (REF) implying that is it an integral part of academic research. However, how do you divide the time between carrying out experiments at the lab bench and communicating them? And once you put yourself out there, how do you make sure that the media gets the story right?

Media training is one of the ways to accomplish this effectively. Sense About Science provides this in the form of the Standing up for Science media workshops, one of which I attended at the Francis Crick Institute (Mill Hill), London recently. The workshops are part of the Voice of Young Science programme, which is supported by the Biochemical Society, focuses on encouraging PhD students and Post Docs to play an active role in public debates about science.

Scientists are often worried about talking to the media: many don’t have the relevant training, some don’t have the time and then there are those who have heard horror stories from their colleagues about misrepresenting headlines and misquoted facts so won’t go anywhere near a journalist.

You might have noticed that most news outlets quote senior researchers in their stories. We don’t often hear from early career researchers, such as PhD students or Post Docs which should make us wonder why they aren’t speaking up. Some of the reasons might be:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of training on how to engage with the media
  • Fear of job security and becoming a target
  • Not having time as it is ‘not a part of the job description’
  • Imposter syndrome – not feeling important or influential enough to comment

It is important to empower and equip early career researchers with the tools to help them develop skills needed to communicate their research with the media effectively and in an engaging way.

It was reiterated many times during the workshop I attended that the research community has the duty of inspiring the public to be interested in science. We sometimes forget that media should ‘inform, entertain and educate’, as often entertainment takes precedence over accuracy. For people who don’t pursue the study of science beyond school, the front page of the newspaper may be the only place they will hear about antibiotic resistant bacteria or mitochondrial donation (so called ‘three-parent babies’).

The workshop consisted of great panel discussions on what is right and wrong about science in the current media and what journalists are looking for. The afternoon ending with a nuts and bolts session, during which Michale Stacey, press officer at Nature, stressed the importance of getting to know your institution’s press office as their help can be crucial when communicating your research to the media.

The attendees appeared to enjoy themselves and find the sessions beneficial. I had the chance to talk to a couple of our members Brooke Lumicisi and Jake Howden, both PhD Students in the Randall lab at Kings College London. Brooke commented:

“The breakout sessions were a particularly good element. Allowing us all time to interact with other young scientists and discuss issues that we find important. These more informal discussions gave me an insight in to how my peers view science and the media, as well as provide me with an important opportunity to assess my own role within a group.”

Jake added: “Attending the workshop has motivated me to want to get involved in public engagement. I am still undecided about my future career so attending events such as this one really helped me discover what possibilities are out there and find out what I am interested in.”

If you are interested in developing your media skills but have missed this course, the Royal Society of Biology are running a course “Introduction to print, radio and television” on 23 November 2015. Biochemical Society members are entitled to a discount when booking.

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