Science Communication as a Way of Life
For Salford University Postgraduate Conference, School of Computer Science and Engineering, 17 March, 2017.
Before Christmas, I attended an event where a renowned Emeritus Professor explained to me that he was not terribly fond of the term ‘science communication’ as he felt it sounded like a very unidirectional exercise.
To him, it sounded as though we — as scientists, engineers, or whatever we might call ourselves — were trying simply to sell something to the public, be it an idea, motivation, or a product. It’s hard to deny that this is what science communication often tries to do. I mean, consider this from Richard Dawkins:
We do want to sell the idea that there is value in the scientific method and we should be given as much money as is available to continue this work.
However, this makes science communication a naturally conservative practice, anxious to ensure credibility through accuracy, because we believe that this is a sound basis on which we should lead our lives, especially where there are competing interests in our future. And there are always competing interests in our future. Science provides us with an evidence base for decision making, which can be scrutinised, and we want to implore people to value such work to value the process of peer review — which has become a gold standard not just in academia, but now across the entire media spectrum, as our reputational economy dominates the economics of social media. And all media is now social.
However, science communication is a great deal more than this for many of us and what I want to get across to you today is that doing science communication is much more intimately connected to who we are as people, as human beings, than it is about our professional identities. This interpretation of what it involves is also the argument for why we should all seek to do more of it, whether or not we are scientists and regardless of whether it is part of our time allocation.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that science communication work will never be successful if it is just left to scientists to do, or the professional communication media. And I think we see the undertones of this view in the recent rise of citizen science, but I’ll come back to that.
For me, science communication became a way of life at a very early stage in my postgraduate studies. As an early PhD student, I was told that the average academic paper is read by 6 people, which really didn’t inspire me too much. I must admit, I didn’t check sources on that, but neither did it surprise me. After all, how many people want to read about, well, nearly everything we do? The average academic article is hardly the most entertaining literature to read. Yet, I heard this at a time when the Internet was really taking off and so I started to think about how I could use the Web to share my work.
Now at the risk of embarrassing myself, I want to show you a little of that journey. I’ve tried to keep screenshots of my website homepage over the years, and while some versions are lost, here are a few of them, which show a little about how design has evolved, how my sense of identity has changed.
I found an academic association to work with and started building their website and I helped my school put its course materials online — the first time it ever did this. All of that work was borne out of a desire to reach more people and make no mistake, academia is pretty terrible at supporting us to in doing this sort of thing.
We have to get out there and do it ourselves, but that’s not simply because we are under resourced — and we will always be under-resourced because there is no limit to the amount of knowledge we can pursue.
Telling a Good Story
Rather, it’s because our science communication is an extension of our intellectual property, of who we are as people. A few years ago, Sir Mark Walport said ‘Science is not finished until it is communicated’, but I think that science doesn’t begin until it’s communicated.
Whether it is the drawings of Darwin, or the sketch of Watson and Crick, or the infographics of the Sketching Science team, communication is intrinsic to the act of doing science and being better at it helps us connect our work and make it more rigorous. We can even go back to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as a manifestation of this correlation.
It starts with our own self-communication — our capacity to arrange complex ideas into some kind of order. We then need to bring along our peers to test out these arrangements, so it then becomes a matter of communicating in this form. Increasingly, we expect this period to be one also of public consultation and this takes the form of grant applications, public involvement, and even internal scrutiny from specialists outside of our disciplines.
From here, the entire journey of science’s development involves communication touch points and, often the success in getting support is predicated on our capacity to do a good job as communicators. I heard this argument just 2 days ago as the Founder of Mars One said to me that getting his project off the ground was about telling a good story, not actually getting to Mars.
So, we understand that story telling is a big part of doing good science communication and this is why we are really proud to co-present an event with the School of Arts and Media and ITV next week called ‘Meet the Neighbours’, at which attendees can hear about the creative process in television. You can find more information here
However, this is still only a small part of the picture and to understand the larger part, we need to get rid of that first word ‘science’
“communication as a way of life”
Who could argue with this? Communication, as a consequence of our capacity for complex language is the fabric of social life, the very underpinning of human society, that which distinguishes us as a species. Adding the word ‘science’ does not modify this relationship, but neither does it elevate science to some special value.
If this starts to sound like an appeal for doing more science communication, then that’s because it is. It is my contention that we find ourselves in the present news cycle of fake news and alternative facts because we have been negligent over this obligation to be more present in public life, not just the act of doing science communication, but in figuring out how to do it in a way that is not just instrumental to our political circumstances.
When we do science communication with the expressed intention of building support for science or simply building understanding we neglect the deeper mandate we have which is to involve the public, not just to share with them what we are doing. Yesterday, this story was in the news again.
However, the way of life idea is also an appeal to recognise our limits as scientists. Consider your day, today, in fact. Break up your day into chunks: work, eating, toilet breaks, travel, leisure, exercise, shopping, and so on. Now consider when in your day there would be opportunities for me to reach you with my scientific information. Now, you are an incredibly skewed sample, but already, I expect you can see that this window of opportunity is quite small and we have a lot of science to fit through it.
Despite the fact that we consume a lot more media today than we did before — due to mobile phones — that doesn’t mean that you are always receptive to that kind of experience. I know that when I have my lunch, the last thing I want is to digest science news.
Indeed, the proliferation of social media means that we live now in a more competitive attention economy too, where all formats of news are vying for our eyeballs. The fact is, we probably have a maximum of 60 minutes a day to reach someone with some science information and this is a huge reminder that we need to be really creative to get across our messages. We need to make science entertaining, pleasurable, fun, not just an exercise of news consumption. We have to find ways to transfer that other time people use for these other pursuits, into time that is used for digesting science.
So where does that leave us, right now? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s not nearly enough just to be convinced that science communication is valuable, or even to just do it. It’s not enough to have just accurate and compelling science. We need to make that science meaningful to people in a wider spectrum of their lives than just the kind of time they allocate to ‘news engagement’.
Science Communication as a Creative Practice
This is why it is so crucial that science communication is best approached as a creative practice and a lot of my time in the last few years has been spent trying to push the boundaries creatively on how we do science communication. I was lucky enough to have had early inspiration here, in the form of a theatrical production of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which was produced in Glasgow over a decade ago.
Picture it, if you will. 12 people enter this unusual theatre space — a place called the Tramway, which was previously used as a Tram depot. It consists of remarkable spaces, of all sizes. The audience begin their experience and walk through different scenes, designed as chapters in Hawking’s book, leading us to appreciate the complexity of the cosmos, its underpinning improbability and wonder. As a group, we share these experiences, until a penultimate chapter in which we find ourselves in a poker game, all sat around a card table. The dealer tells us that half of us will win and the other half will lose.
Once the game plays out, the 6 winners go one way and the 6 losers go another. At the end of the performance, they are brought back together and share their different stories, unaware that each had done something dramatically different. The losers had been driven around in the back of a van for 20 minutes, blindfold. They didn’t know where they were. The winners were sat in a large warehouse, in pitch black, with spotlights gradually appearing over the heads of each person, dotted around the large Tram storage room. A moon is visible at the height of the room and Hawking’s voice booms out like a god, speaking of the wonder of the cosmos. It remains one of the most memorable cultural experiences I have ever had, shortly followed by Laurie Anderson’s ‘The End of the Moon’, which also was shown in Glasgow around that time.
There are lots of opportunities to do this kind of work, but we need to skill up to figure out how to do it. Here at the University, we have partnered with Manchester Science Festival for the last decade nearly. In fact, if you’d like to get involved with the 2017 programme, then we have a meet up next Tuesday at Media City,
One event we produced last year for the festival was called ‘Amorance’ and it explored the science of falling in love. What I wanted to do was create a deep memory of a science communication experience, like I had in Glasgow. So, we invited people to come along to a night which promised to have them falling in love with each other.
This was by far the most enjoyable event I have ever produced. The science itself is not an area of my expertise, the closest I have come is to exploring how we relate to each other differently in an age of social media. But this needed to be something much more than just one kind of expertise. In fact, if you look at most science issues, you will find scope to involve a number of disciplines, by focusing on the story around the science. If it is engineering, then it might be about how products fit into our lives, the behaviours they create, the conditions they bring to social life. In this case, the science of intimacy took us in the direction of psychology, but the event was made meaningful by taking the participants on a journey. We gave them the 36 questions that are designed to stimulate intimacy, we produced a Love Menu, included love potion cocktails, science love poetry, pseudo-therapy sessions, and the chance to discover the science through these encounters with scientists.
This was also the closest I have come to achieving an event that resonates with the title of this talk.
The Research Excellence Framework and You
Now, what I didn’t want to do with this talk was to explain to you how the need for science communication has grown in recent years as a result of the growing expectation for us to have an impact beyond academia, but it’s smart for you to know about this. If you happen to end up within the UK HE system as researchers, you will have an expectation to grow impact journeys around your research and science communication is a rich route into this kind of work. The Research Excellence Framework is the means by which our research is evaluated, for the purpose of government allocation of funds. In the past, that was mostly about our research outputs, along with our research environment, but now 20% of it is based on our impact outside of academia. The parameters of this impact are really pretty broad and can encompass anything from policy influence to product adoption. If you can enter the job market after you complete your PhD with a sense of what your impact is beyond academia, you will be at an advantage. But you will also be a better person J
The #FakeNews Problem
The other thing I didn’t want to do was to convince you that you have an obligation to do this kind of work, but I do believe this. In fact, the last 3 months has made this even more apparent and the March for Science on 22 April is going to really hit home just how fragile are our circumstances as experts, free to pursue enlightenment. I wish there were not, but there is now an urgency to be more visible publicly, to make science communication a core part of our lives, to push back against the absurdity of ‘alternative facts’. We cannot afford to be complacent now and it is in this respect that the way of life I describe is a life that is politically and socially aware. Science Communication Needs You, it really does.
Here at the university, we have just launched a new Master Degree to ensure we are the forefront of this work. We have made it a part time, online course, so that professionals can pursue their careers, while also having the crucial reflective learning space that a Master degree provides, without the two having to be competing for time. The details of this delivery are not irrelevant and they go back to my earlier point about the need for us to rethink how we reach people with our ideas. The next generation may not have time to take degrees, or have themselves tied to a physical place geographically and we need to accommodate this. This also means that we need to actually figure out how to teach remotely. In our MSc, we have courses that cover public engagement, citizen science, art-science overlaps, live performance, film making, digital skills, and much more.
So, for me science communication is a way of life, because communication is a way of life. I feel strongly that we can’t function as citizens if we fail to do a good job of communicating our work. But more crucial to me is that my own personal development is advanced by doing science communication work. Getting in front of a tv camera, standing up on a stage, writing something for a news outlet are all ways in which I feel like I challenge myself, my work, and grow as a professional. So, if you take just one message from this, then consider how science communication can help you build confidence as a researcher, how it can enrich your own enjoyment of your work, but also why you are conduits for real news, which desperately needs our support.
Start of by taking ownership of your public profile, built platforms around your work, use social media to create your network, and start to share your work.