Why should scientists care about communication?

By Anna Leida, PhD Student, Manchester Metropolitan University

As a young scientist working in a controversial field, I sometimes get called on to defend the ethics and policies behind what I do. Anna LeidaDespite this, I have so far focused mainly on my role as a researcher, trusting that if faced with the challenge of speaking about what I do, I would be up for it. Or so I thought, until I got paired up with a couple of student journalists whilst volunteering as a research mentor for a science writing competition with the British Science Association. In research we handle facts. In communication we deliver an opinion, without the 95% confidence intervals. I felt outside my comfort zone.

So when I got the chance to attend a Standing up for Science media workshop through the Biochemical Society, I decided to attend to find out more.

The workshop lasted an entire day – no small investment in the middle of a thesis. But it turned out to be well worth it. Now, when faced with science communication, I will certainly feel a lot less out of my depth. The workshop was organised by Sense about Science, a UK charity that promotes understanding and use of scientific evidence and challenges its misrepresentation, as part of its Voice of Young Science programme.  It was attended by 40 early career researchers from the UK and internationally, who gathered at the University of Manchester for a day of discussion about how science is handled in the media.

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The workshop included a number of panel discussions with researchers and journalists, as well as ample time for questions and discussions among students. For me personally, it was interesting to hear how many questions we all had in common. Of great use were several concrete tips from the experienced researchers on the panel about what to consider when you end up involved in public discussions about science.

Take home messages:

  1. The first take home message was keeping the message simple. As a scientist, you are easily wrapped up in the tiny details of your work and after a while you start to believe that all these little deviations in numbers in the farthest corner of your Excel spreadsheet must interest everyone. Forget that. Writing about your science is putting your ego aside and focusing on what your audience is interested in.
  2. The second was the power of visualization. The old saying still holds: ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.
  3. The third and most important message was remembering why we should bother about communication at all. As scientists we are driven by curiosity – we want to figure everything out. Sometimes while doing that we forget that the cost of figuring everything out is endless. But someone has to pay for it, and the hard task of prioritizing what research we should focus on to shape our future has to be done. For example:
  • What diseases do we want to cure?
  • What inventions do we want to see?
  • What information do we want to be able to find on Wikipedia in 2060?

Making this choice is not easy and the people prioritizing are not experts – nor should           they be. But the nuts and bolts are brought to them by – you guessed it – science                     communication.

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If we can clearly explain what we do and why, both policy makers and the public have a better chance of making evidence-based decisions, decisions which will influence the future of us all.

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Anna is a PhD student in Biomedical Imaging at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Biochemical Society. You can read more about Anna and read more of her thoughts on the workshop on her blog.

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