What the Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication means to me

Posted on

I am not a scientist. There, I said it. But I am a science communicator.

A couple of decades ago, someone like me, with an airy fairy English literature degree, wouldn’t have found themselves working with university scientists. But these days, more and more people like me – science cheerleaders but not necessarily actual scientists – are helping communicate research in the real world.

Science is definitely changing – even in the last five years since I’ve been working closely with researchers. The Research and Excellence Framework (REF) and funding bodies now demand impact that’s way beyond papers, posters and citations. In this climate, enrolling on UWE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication made total sense to me.

The fact such a qualification even exists signals that the discipline of science communication is definitely A Thing, and should be taken seriously. Researchers are an increasingly diverse bunch: the days of the don in his (or sometimes her) ivory tower are (mostly) a thing of the past. Scientists are open to communicating their findings with a wider audience beyond other academics – and we science communicators have a vital part to play in helping them do this well. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about researchers in the last few years, it’s that they respect academic qualifications.

Health is my area of expertise, where it’s vital that we get messages from research right. If a physicist discovers something new about the origins of the universe and it gets misreported, that’s frustrating but it’s not exactly life-threatening. But health stories are bread and butter for certain sections of the mainstream media, and scientific nuance can be sacrificed on the altar of clickbait headlines. Obviously I’m not going to change that culture singlehandedly, but if I can help research teams produce accurate copy that’s still accessible and engaging to the person in the street that’s a good start.

For me, there’s also a political drive at work. In the current climate of fake news and the devaluing ‘experts’, helping more people understand science is a small but valuable contribution to a better, more informed society.

And there are also personal gains. I wanted to hone my skills and formalise the knowledge I’ve accumulated from my work. It’s been fascinating to discover that things I do intuitively, like framing a story, have whole bodies of theory behind them. In fact, sometimes this new knowledge has brought a sort of paralysis when writing something that I would normally knock out quickly in my day job. It’s certainly made me take stock and adopt a more analytical approach to what I do at work, though pressures still demand the odd bit of knocking stuff out.

I spend a lot of time training and supporting other people to be good communicators, so the course has enhanced my confidence in doing this. It’s reinforced the fact that I do already know a lot about effective science communication, and rounded the rough edges off things I’ve picked up informally over the years.

It’s well known that lifelong learning is an essential element of personal wellbeing. This course has invigorated me, helping me see new perspectives, meet new people and work on out of the ordinary projects. I’ve created a magazine with a group of people I didn’t know six months ago, and developed a board game for a UWE air quality project. It’s been an energising experience.

I won’t pretend it’s all been easy. I have a family and a full time job, and fitting the course in around these responsibilities has been challenging. I’m lucky that my employers have funded and supported me to do this course and have been generous in allowing me study leave. My partner has taken up the slack and generally been a rock when deadlines bite. I wouldn’t have been able to do the PGCert without the support of colleagues, friends and family.

Science communication is an alchemical mix of creativity and scholarship, where apparently clashing cultures meet. This course has really brought that to life for me. I’ve enjoyed the journey so far so much that I’m seriously considering doing the full MSc – if my work and personal life can accommodate it!

Zoe Trinder-Widdess is Communications Manager for Bristol Health Partners and NIHR CLAHRC West.

Be visible or vanish

Posted on

 

After Cristina Rigutto’s informative seminar on post-publication digital engagement, we asked for her advice about blogging and how to increase our visibility online. Cristina reminded us that a key element of an academic’s profile is their digital footprint (including blogposts, Twitter feed, Instagram and webpages) – but to be effective in communicating your research online, you need people to find and follow you. We’ve all spent time trying to track people down online, sifting through a myriad of content – so how can you raise your profile to let people know you’re out there beavering away?

  • You need to be found on Google, the best way to do this is to create a Google Scholar profile. The profile can include all your output, not just peer reviewed content.
  • Put your presentations on Slideshare (one of the 10 most viewed sites in the world) it connects to Microsoft and LinkedIn.
  • Set up a YouTube channel in your name.
  • Wikipedia. – whilst Wikipedia is notoriously difficult to add content to you can easily insert a reference to your paper/ presentation into an existing page about your topic.
  • WordPress – put all the information about yourself in one place that then links out to your Twitter profile, Instagram account, blog etc.

It may not be practical to utilise all of these but any one will bump you up the list and help people connect with you.

Tips for academic blogging

BlogAn increasing number of academics are using blogs to reach a wider audience and share their research in a more comprehensible way. However, a staggering 81% of people will only read your first paragraph (71% the second, 63% the third and 32% the fourth, you get the idea if you’ve read this far…).

So the opening paragraph needs to contain your key message and words (detail can follow in subsequent paragraphs):

  • Keep to 300-750 words.
  • Repeat key words and their synonyms.
  • Use links inside the post including internal links to other posts.
  • Use lists as often as possible (see what we did there!) – a search engine reads html tags and will place your post higher on the results page.
  • Tweet a lot about the post – most people only catch a snapshot of the content on their twitter feeds, give your post a chance by shouting about it frequently!
  • Send as a Direct Message to anyone who may be interested – you don’t need to ask them to share it, you can just ask their opinion and often they will share your content anyway.

So there you have it, once you’ve set up your digital presence it is relatively easy and not too time consuming to maintain, build it into the everyday activities you carry out as an academic!

Jane Wooster and Kate Turton

 

Student opportunities at the Latitude Festival

Posted on

One of the nice things we’re able to do from time to time is offer our Masters students work experience on a public engagement project.

For the last two years (2014 and 2015) Margarida Sardo and I have carried out an evaluation of a strand of activities sponsored by the Wellcome Trust at the annual Latitude Festival.

debs
Debs (2015) handing out feedback cards

The Latitude Festival is a well-known and wide-ranging cultural festival, which includes comedy, music, theatre, literature, poetry, dance and more (think Glastonbury but with less mud and more writers!). The Wellcome Trust events are also hugely varied, including poetry, music and theatre performances, presentations, discussions, dialogues and interactive events.

Margarida designed the evaluation, including snapshot interviews with members of the audiences, informal feedback via comment cards, observations of events and interviews with presenters, while I led the evaluation at the festival. In both years, the students were chiefly responsible for carrying out the audience interviews and looking after the informal feedback, so it was an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of what is involved in the evaluation of a live event as well as strengthen their communication skills.

Tariq and Tom (2014)
Tariq and Tom (2014) sorting out feedback on post-it notes

With around 26 events taking place in half a dozen locations around the three days of the Festival, the help and support of our students was absolutely invaluable in helping to collect as much data as possible. Between them, the 2015 team observed 14 full events, persuaded 45 people to be interviewed and got 192 people to complete a comment card!

louisa
Louisa (2015) doing a snapshot interview

In return for students’ support, we offered a modest payment, subsistence expenses during the Festival and free transport to and from Suffolk. The students also had free tickets to the Festival, which gave them access to most of its 200 or so events. As most of the science events took place during the day, and the big comedy and music headliners were on late at night, the students got to see some really interesting stuff!

You can find our report from the 2014 Festival on the UWE repository. And the hard work of the students is also contributing to two papers that Margarida and I are currently working on.

Ann Grand and Margarida Sardo are research fellows in the Science Communication Unit.

Knowledge is power?

Posted on

Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.

We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.

Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!

The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.

So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.

But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.

Laura Fogg-Rogers is a Research Fellow in the SCU at UWE.
@laurafoggrogers

This post was originally published in the STEM Communicators Network newsletter Issue 32.The research article it is based on is available in Science Communication 37 (4).

Welcome to the Science Communication Unit Blog

Posted on

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.