Teaching scientists to communicate

By Richard Bowater, Senior Lecturer, University of East Anglia 

Bowater's blog
Example of POSTnotes published by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Parliamentary copyright image reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

The need to be able to communicate with a wide range of audiences is now – generally – accepted to be a requirement to be a good scientist and several UK universities run courses that train students in the skills of science communication. In my department at UEA, a final year module in science communication has been organised for several years by Prof Kay Yeoman, who was interviewed recently on this blog. The module is popular with a range of science undergraduates and we aim to develop their expertise to communicate with a range of audiences.

Frequently, science communication events are targeted at the general public or schoolchildren and organizing these events requires a particular awareness in the level of language that is used. But it is important to remember that scientists have to engage with other audiences that require different types of language. Some organizations aim to produce balanced and accessible briefings on scientific topics and this requires specific skills in communicating the significance of scientific developments. Organizations that prepare this type of information include the professional scientific societies, such as the Biochemical Society. One particular group of people targeted by this type of information is politicians and policymakers, and scientists are needed to facilitate interactions with these groups. To provide opportunities to develop such skills, for the past few years the Royal Society of Biology has organized the Voice of the Future event, providing opportunities for young scientists and engineers to quiz key figures at the Houses of Parliament.

Parliamentarians are also aware of their need to have access to high quality, balanced information about scientific topics, particularly those that are in the public eye. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is the UK Parliament’s in-house source of independent analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology. The remit of POST is to report on recent research across the biological, physical and social sciences, engineering and technology in a context that is suitable for Parliamentary use.

POST has developed several resources that are of interest to scientists:

  • POSTnotes are the best known format for briefings and are available to all via the POST website and in a printed format. These four page summaries of public policy issues are based on reviews of the research literature and interviews with stakeholders from across academia, industry and government. Importantly, POSTnotes are peer reviewed by external experts. POSTnotes are often produced proactively, so that parliamentarians have advance knowledge of key issues before they reach the top of the political agenda.
  • POSTbriefs are responsive policy briefings based on mini-literature reviews and peer review; these are only available in an electronic format.
  • Seminars, receptions and other events are held regularly to discuss science and technology topics.
  • POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend three months working at POST.

As part of the Science Communication module at UEA students must develop a project to engage with a specific audience. For the current cohort we have explored the usefulness of POSTnotes to develop the skills of the students in preparing unbiased information that is understandable to an audience that is educated but not necessarily to an advanced level in science. Several students have selected current science topics that are controversial or have specific ethical dilemmas for general society. They have then been tasked to:

  • Develop a briefing information leaflet in the style of a POSTnote.
  • Evaluate the potential impact and reach of the resource, with consideration of how related resources could be developed in the future.

The students are in the process of finalizing their individual information leaflets and they will move on to evaluating them by the end of April. Once the leaflets are complete, we hope to provide an additional blog to illustrate the processes undertaken by the students and provide some indication of what they produced. See you in a few weeks!

You can follow Richard Bowater on Twitter @RBowaterLabBIO

See POST website and follow @POST_UK for further information and the latest updates.

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