Raising the game – evolutionary education in a virtual museum

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Palaeontology – the study of past life – is a key element of understanding biology, changes in life over time and responses to large scale environmental changes. Despite this, the extent to which schools can teach their students about the subject is often limited by access to teaching materials, in terms of both funding to buy physical resources and space to store them. Looking at digital collections of specimens residing in museums around the world could be a way round this, but then schools run into the problem that such collections tend to be research-oriented and not constructed or presented to facilitate public or educational use. Even if they are able to look at these databases online, complex structures and specialist language are unlikely to be accessible or engaging for school students (or their teachers and families who may be supporting them to complete their work) to explore. Trips to visit physical museums, while undoubtedly of great value, can bring their own difficulties, with aspects such as cost, logistics and time out of school to consider and aren’t an experience or learning resource that can be offered regularly.

In an effort to find a solution, the Virtual Natural History Museum is a novel engagement project that aims to consolidate palaeontological multimedia into a single educational resource. The website takes the form of a giant computer game museum which visitors can explore, just as they would a physical museum, viewing digital versions of fossils and other items you’d find in a museum as they go.

The virtual museum will be free to use and will run within website browsers, so no additional software will be required. This way, anyone with an internet connection will be able access world-class natural history collections and learn about fossils and past environments, from wherever they are. The website will mainly rely on the online research catalogues that museums produce for academics, bringing them together in one place and making them accessible.

The project is ripe for development for use in schools, as a resource for teachers to set homework projects and class-based tasks to explore the world of fossils, dinosaurs and more. In order to understand how the team behind the museum can continue to create this exciting new resource in a way that will best suit schools and teachers, we are engaging with teachers from primary and secondary schools, as well as science communicators, in research to find out where they should go next. The V-NHM project is hosted by the University of Bristol, with UWE Bristol leading this pilot research to inform its future development.

We’re doing this by running an online survey which allows educators to try out the museum and give their thoughts, conducting focused interviews with teachers to further explore their perspective on the virtual natural history museum concept, and giving primary and secondary schools students the opportunity to test the museum concept and give their feedback. Their insights will be invaluable in directing the future of the virtual museum, and school students participating in the study are enjoying the opportunity to be involved with and contribute to real life research.

For more information about this research, please contact Dr Laura Hobbs; to find out more about the Virtual Natural History Museum please contact the project lead, Dave Marshall.

Can YOU solve the city’s sustainability dilemma? Sci Comm South West delegates given a taste of urban planning

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Author: Mollie Atherton (MSc Science Communication student at UWE Bristol)

I’ve never decided the fate of a large slice of land before, fictional or otherwise. Stepping into the shoes of town planners and developers at Sci Comm South West 2019, participants in the workshop ‘Can you solve the city’s sustainability dilemma?’ were given the opportunity to explore the decisions that need to be made when considering urbanisation, city growth and the all-important sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

Ruth Larbey, a Science Communication Unit (SCU) expert in communicating science to environmental decision-makers, gave us a simple brief. We had two minutes to make an elevator pitch (as in, the time it takes for a long elevator ride) to convince a representative of the fictional city, Swester, that our vision for a newly available two acres of inner-city land was most suitable for the needs of the city and its residents.

Credit Tom Sparey

We were split into groups and given an idea to pitch. I found myself in the camp proposing the building of a new leisure center. However, we were up against fierce competition in the forms of: a business incubator, a renewable energy company, a community farm, and housing developers.  

Credit Tom Sparey

The UN’s SDGs had to be considered and we had to pitch how our idea would best integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values, contribute to sustainable urbanisation and best provide for the local community. We were to use our powers of persuasion to convince the city authorities that ours was the best use of the land for the sustainable growth of the city and would best improve the health and welfare of its residents. Before we started our pitches, we were also given the following information about the city of Swester: 

  • 350,000 residents 
  • Developing IT and technology sector 
  • Increased jobs 
  • Fast growing population 
  • Need for more affordable housing 
  • Lack of green space 
  • Lack of facilities for exercise 
  • High air pollution due to increased number of cars 
  • High rates of medical conditions, such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes 

Considering the above problems, here are the pitches proposed by each stakeholder group:

Orchard Housing 

As housing developers, Orchard Housing unsurprisingly suggested a new local development. They promised 30% affordable housing to fill the gap in the market and suggested a shared community allotment to maximise green space. The houses would incorporate renewable designs and architecture in line with the SDG of integrating ecosystem and biodiversity values into local planning. 

Shipshape Renewables 

Shipshape Renewables suggested the land would be best used as a solar farm. They wanted to turn industrial land into business space and work alongside Swester’s growing tech sector to develop the city into a green business hub. Their aim was to move the city towards being carbon neutral and providing local fuel discounts to help alleviate fuel poverty. 

Swestershire Sports 

Swestershire Sports were pitching the idea of a new sport and leisure centre. Their argument was that a sports center would improve the physical and mental health of the population of Swester, thereby relieving some of the pressures of an unhealthy and increasing population on the local hospital. They suggested school schemes and discounts for residents who would not otherwise be able to afford membership. 

Temple Seeds 

Temple Seeds are a community group interested in food growing. They proposed that the land would be best developed into a community farm to address the lack of green space and improve air quality, local food production and community isolation. The farm would be a hub of growing knowledge and organise food swaps as well as allotments and an education center to teach children about food. 

West Country Innovation Hub 

The business hub wanted to bring jobs to the local economy. They suggested a business park of remodelled shipping containers, highlighting that it would bring more jobs within walking distance, thus reducing residents’ reliance on cars for transport and alleviating air pollution in the process. The park’s design would be in keeping with the SDGs and would provide some, if not all, its power from green sources.  

Each potential stakeholder group was also given the opportunity to choose one other group to partner up with and share the development space. Given the city’s lack of green space, most groups chose to pair with Temple Seeds, as they felt a community garden could be the most easily incorporated into their design.  

What I found most interesting about this exercise was considering not just the immediate benefits of each idea for the land, but also the benefits from every angle, and then trying to cram all those benefits into just two minutes of talking.

We realised that the communication of science and policy is what would make or break our pitches for the land, and so had to really think hard about how to maximise all the ways in which our ideas fitted the needs of the community and the requirements of the SDGs. It made us appreciate how precious development land is, particularly with increasing populations and scarcer resources.  

Deciding a winner was difficult. All pitches were made convincingly, and all had their own merits for the community and for the environment. They also all had their own challenges in implementation, but in the end the best pitch won – I’ll let you decide which that one was. 

Celebrating science communication talent in the South West

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On 21st June, UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit welcomed over 100 delegates to X Block on UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus to celebrate regional ‘sci comm’ talent and debate how researchers and practitioners can harness this resource to begin addressing today’s most pressing societal, economic and planetary challenges.

Keynote with Carla Almeida_Credit Tom Sparey

After a warm welcome from Professor Olena Doran, the key note speaker, Dr Carla Almeida offered insights into the challenges of communicating science and health related issues in the Favela surrounding the Museum of Life in Rio De Janeiro, her home city in Brazil. She spoke passionately of how the Museum is reaching out to the local community, training students from the local area as science communicators and raising their aspirations. These students help to break down barriers between favelas and Foundation Oswaldo Cruz in which the Museum is located. The Museum also takes part in the annual Carnival which draws in the community. At the heart of what they do is a mission to foster a two-way dialogue with local people so they can begin to address some of the socio-environmental and health related issues facing the community of which they are a part.

Coffee breaks offered networking_Credit Tom Sparey
Coffee breaks offered networking_Credit Tom Sparey

Several parallel sessions throughout the day built on this theme, including With Whom Do You Communicate? A sessionthat introduced two novel projects (Black2Nature and STFC’s The Wonder Initiative) that aim to widen participation in science, technology and nature conservation; and Letting Go of What’s Not Serving Us, which crowdsourced solutions to the difficulties of using academic language when trying to engage with local communities.

Binning the jargon with Malcom Gladwell from Mufti Games_credit Tom Sparey
Binning the jargon with Malcom Gladwell from Mufti Games_credit Tom Sparey

Talking of academic language, in a joint interactive session between James Nobles (NIHR CLAHRC West), Zoe Banks Gross (Knowle West Media Centre) and Malcolm Hamilton (Mufti Games) gave delegates a chance let go (and bin) the jargon that wasn’t serving them, an exercise they play with low socio-economic status residents across Bristol to get them moving and to discuss how effectively physical activity guidelines are communicated.  

Huddling in for a story with Dawn Ellis_credit Tom Sparey

The voices and perspectives on the day were truly diverse, as were the types of sessions and activities on offer. You could have chosen to play Periodic Table Top Trumps or taken part in a decision-making simulation run by Ruth Larbey of the Science Communication Unit, while during lunch there was opportunity to explore UWE grounds with a guided nature walk by Richie Fleuster and discover what’s being done to improve biodiversity across our campuses. The day ended with a keynote from speakers representing Eden Project, I’m A Scientist, We The Curious and The Natural History Consortium, among others. During the drinks reception storyteller Dawn Ellis seamlessly wove in highlights from the day into a tale about ninja’s from the West Country on a mission to save the world.

The conference was so well received that we are already being asked when we will host the next one, and believe this event has successfully reminded people of the role of the Science Communication Unit regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Over the coming weeks we will be sharing articles on our blog about the event, including one on how to design inclusive events.

We’re looking forward to the next one already!

Sophie Laggan, Project Coordinator: Sci Comm South West Conference 2019

Best of both worlds: the degree that means you don’t have to choose

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At the height of the recession in 2008, deciding what to study at university took me a lot longer than expected. I was torn between English or pursuing a career in conservation. Science inevitably won, so I packed my bags and moved 250 miles down the road to study for my undergraduate degree in Cornwall. Due to personal factors I struggled with the curriculum at times, but soon realised that the work I enjoyed most involved communication.

When I finished my degree, applying for an MSc in Science Communication was a no brainer. Bristol is a lovely city and the course at UWE had great reviews. Being able to put learning into practice is key for me, so I took hands-on modules in writing and broadcasting science – which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

Before I had finished my dissertation in 2012, I found myself interviewing for my first job in science communication. I joined a tiny team at a sustainability organisation, where I worked on communications and events. Being part of such a small team proved a rapid learning experience and equipped me with the skills needed to move to the next level. 

I liked living in Bristol so much when studying for the MSc that I decided to go back a few years later. I managed to secure a role at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), about an hour away from Bristol. The daily commute wasn’t fun, but I had job satisfaction. As a media officer, I was tasked with processing complex journal articles into digestible press releases, pitching science stories to the media and working in tandem with other teams. 

A highlight was organising a hands-on science communication event for blind and partially-sighted people in Tower Hamlets. With the help of inspirational scientists at Oxford Brooks University, we brought the world of microscopy to life with 3D-printed bacteria and viruses.

Working at BBSRC I met many interesting people, forging connections with academics and media colleagues. After nearly 3 years, I decided to go it alone as a freelancer.

Initially I was petrified as I didn’t know whether being my own boss would be sustainable in the long run. Nearly 5 years after completing my MSc, I found myself opening a business and began contracting for charities and science organisations. I worked for Autistica, the UK’s leading autism research charity, developing communications to secure donations for autistic people and their families during World Autism Awareness Week. The Science Council were another client, as well as the Gatsby Foundation based in London. For nearly two years I worked on their Technicians Make it Happen campaign, challenging stereotypes  and raising the profile of our technical workforce.

Going it alone brought some life-changing opportunities. I was lucky enough to tour Scandinavia and moved to Iceland in 2017. I decided to take a mini career break but ended up doing something entirely different. In the summer I started an internship at the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s no.1 English-speaking newspaper. Working as a reporter, I did some really weird but amazing things. I met a ‘real-life Viking’, chased birds across the country and got trippy in a Native American sweat lodge (a tradition brought to Iceland by Björk’s mother no less). My favourite moment was spending a night alone in a yurt on an island in Iceland.  

Fast forward to 2019 and I’m, you guessed it, back in Bristol. I now work as a Senior Communications Officer for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), highlighting threats to the nation’s trees. I get to design communications campaigns and lead on delivery. It’s an ideal job. Who would have thought 10 years after ‘choosing’ between science and communications, I’d have the best of both worlds.

Anisha Chandar, UWE Bristol MSc Science Communication student

From MSc in Science Communication to Media Relations Manager…

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I knew Science Communications was for me when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and preferred talking about my dissertation research, rather than being in the lab doing it. After that, I did some research and found the UWE MSc in Science Communication. I applied immediately. 

The module options on the programme at UWE drew me in as there were a variety on offer, and they each offered practical skills to help me step into a job right away. I knew that I wanted to work while completing my MSc, building up my experience in London, so the 3-day blocks worked perfectly for me. I held a number of internships during my time on the programme, and picked up my first part-time job when our lectures finished.

During the programme, as well as the compulsory modules, I studied Writing Science and Hands-On Science Communication. These modules taught me how to tell compelling stories about science that capture people’s imaginations – on page and in person. While the latter might not seem directly related to my role, it taught me a lot about how to explain something complex verbally. Often I’m speaking to journalists over the phone and have to be able to communicate clearly. It also built my confidence in presenting (it’s something you can’t avoid in this career!) and the modules gave me strong foundations by teaching me how to structure a presentation and deliver it with impact. I was also able to build a strong portfolio of work to take into interviews, which is hugely helpful when you’re starting out.

Armed with the academic and work experience I accrued during the MSc, I knew that I wanted to work in communicating science within a charity when I graduated, so I chose to focus my dissertation on how cancer charities communicate online. The project module is very open, so you can choose whatever you’d like to learn about. I picked something I was really interested in, and it also helped show my awareness in the area in job interviews later. 

Straight out of the MSc, I worked a part-time job in general communications for a medical membership organisation, alongside which I later worked another part-time role with a research laboratory, with a couple of freelance jobs on the side too.

Those times were pretty hectic, but I learnt a lot very quickly and had a wealth of experience after a year, including in time management. I then moved to Cancer Research UK working as a Science Press Officer, which was an incredibly busy, fun and meaningful job to me.

Now, as the Media Relations Manager for The Lancet, I manage our media output – deciding which of our many research papers to promote in the media, and how, to help achieve high profile, quality, international media coverage of the journals. I work in a wider communications team, and manage a Press Officer and freelance writers. While my undergraduate degree is key to help me understand the complex health research, my MSc is crucial in helping me recognise how to tell those stories to journalists and the wider public. The Lancet is strongly driven to use our research to benefit people’s lives, and the stories I help to tell focus on changing people’s perception, changing policy, or changing clinical practice.

A recent example of this is the so-called ‘planetary health diet’ – a huge report which was originally published in The Lancet and gave the first scientific targets for a healthy diet that was environmentally sustainable too. Working with the research funders’ media teams, we devised a comprehensive media strategy to ensure that the story hit the news globally, opening people’s eyes to the impact of food production on the climate and what we can each do to reduce this. The report made a huge public impact, making the ‘planetary health diet’ a globally recognised term, and changing food policy in some countries already. 

Media briefing for ‘planetary health diet’.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had the training I had at UWE, and I must mention the teaching staff on the MSc, who were always exceptional and give up a lot of time to support us and train us so well. Throughout my MSc, they gave me detailed, honest advice on what to expect from various careers, and linked me up to people working in that area when possible so that I could get on-the-ground insights too. They were very nurturing and their advice on those career paths is absolutely accurate. If you’re looking for an MSc in Science Communications, you’re in the right place and their training will be a vital cornerstone that you reflect on frequently in your career. 

Emily Head, MSc Science Communication student at UWE, Bristol

Calling all south-west science communicators!

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Us south-western folk have much to be proud of.  From Cornwall’s glistening beaches and Dartmoor’s breathtaking expanses, through to Bristol’s thriving cultural scene and the gastronomic joys that are Somerset scrumpy and Cheddar cheese (cave-aged and extra-mature, naturally).

And then, of course, we have our industrious science communication sector.

We at the Science Communication Unit (SCU) believe the time is ripe to celebrate the south-west’s diverse science communication expertise. Thus, we are bringing together science communicators from across the region (and beyond) at the first ever Sci Comm South West conference, which takes place on 21st June 2019 at UWE Bristol.

What can we, as a collective, do to foster a brighter future for the research and practice of science communication… and for society? How does our regional hub fit within the global picture of science communication, and local, on-the-ground action?

These are some of the questions addressed by the day’s innovative mix of interactive workshops and presentations delivered by an eclectic set of science communicators from organisations including the Eden Project, We the Curious and the Met Office.

And just as science communication is not limited to the south-west, nor are our guests. We are very excited to welcome Carla Almeida from Rio de Janeiro as our keynote speaker. Carla will be sharing her experiences of how the Museum of Life, an interactive science centre, has engaged with local, socially vulnerable communities – to shape the identity of the museum itself.

The event has another important goal: to catalyse a network of science communicators from the south-west. What might a SciCommSW network look like? Come take part in discussions to help shape this new network for the region and ensure it best serves the needs of its members.

We are planning a warm and welcoming day, which provides ample opportunity to learn, have fun and meet fellow science communicators. For further information, the programme (draft) and to register please go to our conference page.

We look forward to seeing you there!

You can also follow developments at @SciCommsUWE #scicommsw19

From MSc in Science Communication to Science Writer…

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When deciding where to study a Master’s degree, employability was a huge factor for me. I was keen to study somewhere that would teach me how to get stuck straight into the world of Science Communication. From day one in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, we were treated like professionals and encouraged to present ourselves as so to the rest of the sci-comm community.

Since graduating, I have taken on regular freelance writing projects which have been a great way to practice the skills I learned at UWE Bristol. I have also recently started a full time job as a Science Writer for a small company in mid Wales who specialise in Cellular Pathology. My day job now includes writing articles for pathologists about new research and developing ideas to create multimedia content for our website.

I was already interested in Science Writing when I started the course so was grateful to learn a lot about this topic whilst studying and to meet several industry professionals. One of the key skills I am now using on a daily basis is learning how to filter through academic papers- as a communicator you may need to sort through huge quantities of research to fully understand an issue. I’ve also learned how to write more concisely. This really helps with sticking to word counts. My interview skills also developed very quickly on the course, something I’d never done before. I now use these skills to interview customers, researchers and colleagues both face to face and over the phone. Unsurprisingly, one of my favourite modules on the course was Writing Science and I still have the “Top Tips” we were given during the course and refer to them regularly for a refresher.

As much as I loved gaining the practical writing skills I now use in my full time job, I am also really glad I had the opportunity to learn more about the theory and history of the field as well. It has definitely broadened my horizons about more types of communication and how different media can be used to encourage science communication in a format accessible to everyone. Some of the other practical skills I gained through the course served to be valuable life lessons in team work, compromise and self-confidence. For example, I can proudly say I was part of a team to record an “as-live” radio show at the BBC- that’s a pretty memorable experience!

Finally, the teaching staff and my course mates from UWE Bristol have become invaluable sources of professional advice and encouragement as we all continue to support each other and celebrate our successes. Amongst my course mates we have shared a whole range of achievements including further study, international travel for fieldwork, BBC credits, conference attending and journal publication.

To find out more about the MSc Science Communication please visit our Postgraduate taught courses page.

Siobhan Fairgreaves, UWE Bristol MSc Science Communication student 2016/17

How to write a research synthesis report (or how I conquered my batteries mountain!)

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The words on the screen are drifting in and out of focus… lithium-ion and sodium-ion, redox flow and redox couples… and, errrrrm, what does ‘roundtrip efficiency’ mean?

It’s April 2018.  I have just returned to work after a sleepless year on maternity leave and been tasked with writing a report on battery technologies and their environmental impacts.

It’s an honour to write about such an important topic – batteries are critical to renewable energy systems and e-mobility – and I am excited about the job ahead.

However, faced with this seemingly insurmountable, not to mention impenetrable, pile of scientific papers upon which to base the report, it’s also easy to feel a little daunted.

I pull myself together. I know that I can do this because I’ve been here before, having successfully delivered reports on a diverse set of topics, from green finance to fish farming – as baffling as some of these topics may have seemed at first.

And sure enough, six months later, Towards the Battery of the Future (as the finished report is now titled) is being handed out to warm approval at high-level international conferences and EU meetings, deemed worthy of attention by top-tier policymakers and captains of industry.

With a glow of satisfaction, I pat myself on the back for having mastered a topic that, initially, I knew very little about. I’m also chuffed to have played a role in sharing the science with wider society.

Research syntheses

Towards the Battery of the Future is one of a number of reports I have worked on for Science for Environment Policy over the past 8 years. It is an example of a research synthesis – a publication which weaves together research, often from multiple disciplines, to support or influence policy.

In Science for Environment Policy’s case, we distill research to help policymakers protect and enhance our environment.

I can tell you from my time on these reports that producing a research synthesis is a tricky business. I am just starting work on a new report which explores the wonders of pollinators, and it feels a good time to reflect upon how best to go about a research synthesis.

An increasing body of scholarly work is assessing the role and impact of research syntheses, and various techniques for creating them1. This has yielded some interesting principles and frameworks, which provide valuable food for thought and guidelines for action.

This blog post is my nuts-and-bolts contribution to the discussion and, below, we have a handful of pointers, drawn from personal experience. These helped me take the batteries report, and those before it, on the journey from a mystifying blur of pixels to a bona fide publication, and one which may just make the world a better place.

1. Talk to real people

A chat with a well-selected expert can clarify more about a topic than days of scouring through research papers (and certainly more than could ever be gleaned from Wikipedia).

Work on the batteries report really got going after some enlightening conversations with the commissioning policy officer in Brussels and my trusty scientific advisor in Germany. Both helped define what we really need to focus on.

Where does the weight of evidence sit? What are the big debates and unknowns? And, seriously, what does roundtrip efficiency actually mean?

Thanks these chats, the words on my screen start to snap into focus, and, armed with a list of useful keywords, I feel ready to take on the research databases and build this report.

(And, turns out roundtrip efficiency is really a very simple concept. Need to know: you don’t want your batteries to leak too much energy when recharging).

2. And talk to lots of different types of people

I lost count of how many people contributed to and reviewed the batteries report. These helpful souls not only offered useful details, but also balance with their diverse backgrounds, from transport to chemicals.

And it’s not just scientists and policymakers who can help. Businesses, consultants and community groups, for example, are all a treasure trove of information and perspective.

I have been transported from my desk in a grey suburb of Bristol to tropical forests of Central America and windswept fish farms of the Baltic Sea, courtesy of telephone conversations with astonishingly obliging contributors.

With my tabula rasa outset for each report, I do often feel a little ignorant during these chats.  I’ve not quite forgiven the guy who actually shouted at me for asking the wrong questions (owing to my ignorance on the particular topic of the report at the time), but I did come out of that conversation much more knowledgeable than when I went in.

A caveat: the more people involved in a report, the longer it takes – and the risk of missing publication in time for key policy events increases, diminishing the report’s potential impact. In practice, synthesis writers are often faced with the challenge of finding the best way to produce robust content within short timeframes (see also: limited budgets).

3. Your reference manager is your best friend

I’ve seen many a writer get in a twist attempting to manually manage the reams of references that make up a report. Problems often arise as a report continually shifts in form throughout its development; citations get lost, bibliographies get muddled.

I’ve adopted Mendeley to overcome these issues, and do all the awkward formatting for me. It’s not perfect, and I’m always keen to know how others deal with their references, but it sure makes life a lot easier.

4. Keep on truckin’

It is the research that goes into developing a report, and not the actual writing, that drains the most time and energy. A day spent filtering and reading papers can amount to just two or three short paragraphs of text. Producing a research synthesis report is, at times, frustratingly arduous.

However, as Towards the Battery of the Future gradually morphed into a rounded product, I was reminded of why I went into science communication in the first place: it’s the perfect excuse to learn new things. The process of translating between the languages of science and the ‘lay person’ is also something I find undeniably satisfying.

Indeed, as I submit the final draft, I’m wishing I could make my own efficient roundtrip – to go back and do it all again.

Michelle Kilfoyle, Science Writer, Science for Environment Policy

  1. Some recent examples:

The Royal Society & the Academy of Medical Sciences (2018) Evidence synthesis for policy: a statement of principles. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/evidence-synthesis/evidence-synthesis-statement-principles.pdf

Wyborn et al. (2018) Understanding the Impacts of Research Synthesis. Environmental Science & Policy. 86: 72–84. DOI:10.1016/J.ENVSCI.2018.04.013

Making an award winning podcast: podcasts can be a great way to do science communication and have a lot of fun!

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You hear a lot of advice from people when you are thinking of setting up a podcast. People have all sorts of opinions about how long episodes should be, what you should talk about, how you should talk, how often you should release episodes.  I’m not sure any of them are right. Think about the podcasts you listen to. Are they all the same length as each other? All the same format? All series or all regular? I doubt it.

I’m the host of The Cosmic Shed podcast which was recently named as one of the Guardian’s favourite podcasts of 2018. It’s recorded in the crumbling garden shed at the bottom of my garden, somewhere in suburban Bristol. It really is an awful shed but guests on the podcast include Tim Peake, Alice Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nichelle Nichols and Chris Hadfield. We discuss science fact, science fiction and everything in between. Occasionally we take the podcast on the road for live events, like our takeover of Bristol’s planetarium with Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.

Podcasts are what the hosts make them to be. If you’re thinking of setting one up, think about what your favourite podcast are and why you like them. The thing that the best all have in common is that the people hosting and presenting them have a huge passion for their topics. That passion is infectious and vital for the listener but it takes many forms. My favourite podcasts are a mixture of scripted, well researched shows like Caliphate and RadioLab and the more relaxed, informal formats like Spooktator and The Adam Buxton podcast.

The idea for The Cosmic Shed came to me while I was studying for the MSc in Science Communication at UWE. I had recently moved to Bristol and bought a house which needed a lot of work. A lot of work. Water came up through the floor and down through the ceiling. The waste pipe from the toilet went out onto the roof. That’s the end of that sentence but I would add that this part of the roof did not leak. In the garden stood a shed. A truly awful, rotting shed with more holes than the house and half the floor missing. “That looks like a great place to record a podcast”, I thought.

Several years later, The Cosmic Shed podcast has over 100 episodes, won awards and, yet, the shed still looks awful from the outside.

There are a cohort of co-hosts for the Cosmic Shed. We have a nanoscientist Dr Maddy Nichols, an aerospace engineer Dr Steve Bullock, a film nerd (understatement) Timon Singh and more regular guest/hosts like Tushna Commisariat (Physics World) and Achintya Rao (CERN). We all have our own expertise and our own loves of science fiction.

Achtinya Rao and Tushna Commissariat in the shed to discuss October Sky.

We get a fair amount of correspondence from people who tell us that we are like friends to them. They look forward to our episodes and feel like they are sitting in the shed with us as they listen. If you think of your favourite podcasts, I suspect you’ll find most of them have regular hosts who you get to know and like. It’s one of the main reasons why people like podcasts. Not that that is deliberate from our point of view. I believe that it’s just a natural consequence of the way we record the podcast.

The Guardian newspaper described us as a “light-hearted, curious and nerdy listen” and I think that’s what you get if you put a group of friends in a terrible shed, watch a bit of science fiction and record the conversation.

Wildlife presenters Sophie Pavelle and Dr Ben Garrod joined us to talk about Planet of the Apes

Your podcast should be as long as you want it to be, as often as you want it to be and about what you want to it be about. That way, you’ll enjoy doing it as much as your listeners love listening to it.

If you are a podcaster or you are thinking of becoming one, do feel free to get in touch. I’d be delighted to have a chat with you but beware. The first question anyone asks me is how we get such brilliant guests. I never answer it.