Engaging with strangers

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 What happens when social scientists and natural scientists start to work together? Clare Wilkinson summarises her recent research.

As a social scientist whose research has spanned a range of scientific issues, from genetics, to nanotechnologies, robotics to the environment, I’ve always been intrigued to think about the roles that social scientists play when they are working in cross or interdisciplinary settings. A few years ago, with the support of some funding from the British Academy I had the opportunity to consider some of those roles, as well as their benefits and challenges with a small group of interviewees based here in the UK.

Why then? It was a timely opportunity to talk to social scientists about these topics. The social science community was really starting to consider how it demonstrated impact, serves a real purpose and has a role to play in the types of large-scale interdisciplinary research projects that now seem so common. Examples like The Campaign for Social Science and the LSE Impact blog were spurring social scientists to think critically about disciplinary relationships and influence, and I was interested to explore some of these themes within this small piece of research.

Social scientists found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating… they also expressed challenges in collaboration.

21 social scientists participated in the interviews, and they were working at a variety of career stages and in a range of different areas associated to science and technology. It was clear from the data that they found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating, and that collaborating with scientists is often essential when you are interested in some of the social ramifications science potentially creates. However, they also expressed challenges in collaboration. Creating shared languages and understandings of the differing disciplinary approaches was often the most obvious, and this is of course not isolated to working with scientists, the language and approaches used in the social sciences can often be as daunting to ‘outsiders’ as that used in any other academic field.

Collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished.

What really came across in the data though was that collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished. When assumptions around what a disciplinary perspective might provide could be set aside, by both parties, there were opportunities to create fruitful and more creative collaborations. At a time when talk of ‘the two cultures’ is often revisited (see, for example, the recent British Science Association collection of essays Science: Not just for scientists which has some fascinating reflections on this age old argument) the paper concludes that for the best collaborative opportunities we don’t need ‘shotgun ceremonies’ or ‘brief encounters’ but more sustainable relationships over time.

Clare Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in the SCU at UWE.

You can read the research article on which this post is based in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 34 (3-4). A copy is also available via the UWE Research Repository. With thanks to the British Academy [SG-54670].

Masters and beyond with the SCU

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Clare Wilkinson explains some of the programmes that UWE Bristol offers in Science Communication, and how coming back to school builds towards the ‘university of life.’

This year we had around 25 new students joining us to start our MSc Science Communication programme and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication.

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MSc student discusses a project during a UWE open day

At postgraduate level we work with students in a number of ways. Most students join our MSc Science Communication programme, as either a full or part-time student. Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice. This means it continues to attract both those who have just completed a university degree and have already made the decision that their future lies in science communication, as well as students who have been working in a related field for a while and either are looking to make a career transition or to firmly establish a more formal qualification.

Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice.

We also have a smaller number of students who take our Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication. Typically students on this programme tend to be practicing researchers who have been communicating their own research alongside their ‘day job’ and are looking to develop that experience further. On similar lines we also have a number of PhD students, from a wide range of areas at UWE, who are taking one or two of our science communication modules as part of their PhD programme. It’s fantastic to see early career researchers identifying a role for communication and engagement and building this into their research from the outset.

I tend to think about the programme in three ways; as ‘back to school’, the ‘light bulb’ moment and the ‘university of life’.

Back to school

As programme leader I tend to be in touch with our new students a lot, even before they start their courses. I’ll be confirming people’s module choices, double checking they are on the right programme and often having last minute meetings to let new students, and sometimes their families, get a feel for our campus and team.

Deciding to undertake postgraduate study is a big commitment, intellectually but also from a time and financial perspective, and so it’s understandable that often our students, their partners and families can feel a little nervous about it. I vividly remember once having to explain the potential job prospects of our course to an applicant’s father. Science communication was new to him and he wanted to be 100% sure it would offer his science graduate son a potential route to his desired employment in the future. I’m also well practiced in finding the odd coloured pen or piece of paper for a restless five-year old accompanying their parent to a UWE open evening, with very little interest in the new MSc their caregiver is about to undertake.

Any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interests.

So, whatever the age, circumstances or commitments of our new students, starting a postgraduate programme will often mean change, uncertainty and challenges. My aim is that by the first day all new students feel confident that they have made the right decision for them, so that the ‘back to school’ feeling is one they (and their families) can embrace.

The light bulb moment

The start of the programme is always really busy, and this year was no different. Amongst registration activities, introductions to the library and the practicalities of life as a UWE student we also try to fit in content about life as a science communicator, and importantly, lots of opportunities for our students to meet and talk with each other. You only need to look around the room on the first day to realise that people are feeling nervous, anticipating what they will have in common with their new peers and eyeing up those they might potentially be friends with. This brings me to the light bulb moment.

We get introductions happening straight away… ‘Tell us about yourself’, I will say to each person, ‘just some snippets about you, where you are from and why you are here’. It’s then that it starts, each person around the room expressing their passion for communicating, that they love their subject (whatever that might be – we don’t only accept only science-based students on our programme), but that they think their real strengths lie in engaging around it. And one after another, any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interest in communicating and that this will be their home for the coming weeks, months or years.

The university of life

On the first day, we distribute module guides and assessment information, talk about the various disciplines that influence science communication, and outline the expected level of reading. It will become clear that no student can learn all that there is to know about science communication in the first days or weeks of teaching and that much, much more is to come. As one door has closed on their undergraduate studies, the possibilities at Masters level can seem endless. It can be overwhelming, but as with the start of any new project the possibilities are exciting.

 If you are interested in finding out more about the UWE Bristol Science Communication Masters or Postgraduate Certificate, please go to our website.

Welcome to the Science Communication Unit Blog

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Hello new readers and welcome to the first post of the Science Communication Unit Blog. If you don’t know much about us we are a team of staff based at the University of the West of England, Bristol who work in science communication practice, teaching and research. We comprise PhD students, science writers and editors, researchers and academics, who come from a variety of academic perspectives to consider the theory and practice of science communication. You can visit our website to find out more about us.Blog spelled out in Scrabble tiles

In recent years our team has expanded considerably and so now seemed a good time to launch a blog dedicated to the Unit to help us, and you, to keep up-to-date on our latest happenings. On this blog we will be regularly posting our thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects associated to science communication. This will include updates on our current projects, reflections on science communication theories and ideas, our responses and thoughts on current issues facing the sector, as well as some occasional image and video-based content. We will be posting content every two to three weeks and whilst a lot of the material will be drawn from research evidence and academic materials, we will also use this as a space to occasionally share our personal views.

Does this sound like a good idea? Are there other subjects you’d like to see covered on the blog? Don’t forget you can also use the blog as a space to interact with us, sharing your views and ideas on the subjects we post around.

Clare Wilkinson, Associate Professor in Science Communication.