New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

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Words: Andy Ridgway

Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?

While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?

It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project  which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.

A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.

Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.

What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.

What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.

This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.

That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.

This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.

In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:

Thanks to researchers at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copernicus Science Centre, Poland, Vetenskap & Allmanhet, Sweden, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier, Portugal, Sissa Medialab, Italy and the Center for the Promotion of Science in Serbia for their help in translating and distributing the questionnaire.

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

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

2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition – winner announced!

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The winner of the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition has been announced. The competition, now in its 21st year, was open to all PhD students funded by the MRC and entrants were tasked with writing about their own research, explaining to non-scientists why their research matters in just 800 words. Since the competition started in 1998, more than 1,000 researchers have submitted entries and taken their first steps into science communication.

Natasha Clarke winner of the 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing competition

This year’s winner is Natasha Clarke of St George’s, University of London with her article: ‘How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease’. Briet Bjarkadottir, of the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford was the runner up with her article: ‘Stopping the conveyor belt – cancer and fertility’. Fraser Shearer, of the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh, was commended for his article ‘Keep calm and carry to term’.

Andy Ridgway, a Senior Lecturer within the Science Communication Unit, was among this year’s judges that also included the MRC’s Executive Chair, Professor Fiona Watt, Dr Claire Ainsworth, freelance journalist and science writer; Stephen Curry, journalist and science writer; Dr Roger Highfield, MRC Council member and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group and Jennifer Rohn, journalist, novelist and scientist at University College London.

 

Andy said: “What really shone though in the shortlisted entries was the power of telling a relatable, human story when explaining the importance of medical research. By showing how a disease or condition impacts an individual and how this new treatment will change their lives, it conveys the impact of the research in a powerful, engaging way.

“It was a pleasure to read all the shortlisted entries and there are some gifted writers in the field.”

The awards were announced at a ceremony at the Royal Institution on 25 October by the MRC’s Executive Chair and Chair of the judging panel Professor Fiona Watt, alongside Professor Robin Perutz, son of the late Max Perutz.

Fiona said: “It has been a great pleasure to chair the judging panel of this year’s Max Perutz Award.

“The competition is a great way to highlight to early-career scientists the importance of science communication and to showcase their work.  This year we received a record number of entries, from about 10% of MRC-funded PhD students.

“The topics of the winning articles are artificial intelligence and Alzheimer’s disease; cancer and fertility; mental health, depression and stress. I’d like to thank everyone who entered the competition – the judges had a tough time making the selection. Our PhD students do a brilliant job at bringing their research to life – using everyday language, rhetorical devices and personal anecdotes.”

All of the short-listed articles, including Natasha’s winning entry, are now published.

 

Guest Blog – Creating stories with porpoise: top tips for getting the most out of your journalism

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When it comes to food, music and fashion, the interesting stuff often emerges at the interfaces between styles and cultures. When sounds, flavours and cultures collide, the results can be fresh and thought-provoking. Science is no different.

From my experience, it’s often the spaces where academic research blends with politics and culture that provide the most interesting stories. As journalists, we should always be on the lookout for these stories, as they can be the gift that keeps on giving.

One area that undoubtedly falls into this category is the transition to low-carbon energy technologies. Or to put it a more human way: the quest for sources of energy that let us live fulfilling lives without destroying the planet in the process. These stories are multi-faceted, so I would advise you to collaborate with others, then think beyond the single piece of content. If the story has lots of angles, you can share it in many ways in many places.

I’ll give you an example.

I’m a multimedia journalist working for Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics (IOP). At the start of 2018, we decided to launch a new film series that explores how science and technology can help us to tackle global environmental challenges. I was on the hunt for stories.

For one of the films, our environmental editor, Liz Kalaugher , pointed me towards an interesting academic paper published in one of IOP’s academic journals, Environmental Research Letters. The paper documented an interesting ecology case involving a North Sea wind farm built off the Dutch coast.

Scientists, led by Meike Scheidat from Wageningen University, had observed that the local population of harbour porpoise appeared to have grown since the wind park was built – a surprising result given so much infrastructure had just been plonked in a natural marine habitat.

So far, so straightforward. But I had also learned that since the wind farm was installed, fishing vessels had been banned in this patch of sea 10–18 km from the coastal town of Egmond aan Zee. So was it simply that the porpoises had more food now because of the absence of fishing, while those same ships were depriving porpoises of their dinner elsewhere? Another theory suggested that the base of the wind turbines had created an artificial reef environment, attracting more fish thus creating more foraging opportunities for the porpoises.

However, some unrelated studies of other offshore wind farms in the North Sea had found the opposite result – a decline in harbour porpoise in the vicinity of new offshore wind farms. So we cannot generalise and say all offshore windfarms are positive for porpoises. Was there something unique with the ecosystem by the Egmond aan Zee windfarm? Meanwhile, we had also learned that some in the fishing community were said to be unhappy with the shipping ban, especially the lack of meaningful consultation over a decision that affects their livelihoods.

So we had conflicting science on a timely issue, given the recent boom in offshore wind projects in the North Sea. We also had a human conflict. It was quickly shaping into a great story.

The simple option would have been for me to rock up in the Netherlands with my camera, interview a couple of scientists from the study, publish the film and then put my feet up. However, that would have undersold an intriguing and complex story. Instead, I did the following:

  • Identified a Dutch-based science filmmaker Saskia Madlener , who could help shape the story with her expertise and local knowledge.
  • To approach the issue from different angles we interviewed Meike (the scientist behind the original study), Henk Kouwenhoven an engineer involved in the wind farm design, and Rems Cramer a member of the local fishing community.
  • Having shot the film over a couple of days, I wrote a blog article about the trip on my way home. In horrible business speak, publishing that article helped improved the return-on-investment. More importantly, it helped me to highlight the issues and to shape the narrative of the film.
  • Once the film was published, we included it alongside a range of other videos and articles in a new collection called Sustainable Futures . I also spoke about it on the Physics World Weekly podcast.
  • Over the past few months, I have been sharing the film across our social media pages and email newswires, taking every opportunity to plug it.
  • Recently, I have arranged for the films to be shared at American Geophysical Union Fall in December, one of the most important annual global events for geoscientists.

Of course, in writing this blog I realise I am plugging the film yet again! So my four takeaway messages are:

  1. Think about how the science interacts with society, then consider all the different angles and stakeholders for your story.
  2. Think about the different platforms and formats you present your story, and the ways you can adjust it to suit the site (A video? an article? Share a photo of the film shoot on Instagram?).
  3. Don’t be afraid to shout about your stories. The internet is a big place, your story is very unlikely to clog up people’s newsfeeds.
  4. Involve people who know what they’re talking. Interview people involved with the research but also those affected by it.

If you have any ideas for stories, whether its video, audio or good old-fashioned written words, then please get in touch. Email pwld@iop.org or drop me a message on Twitter @jamesdacey.

James Dacey, Multimedia Projects Editor, Physics World

Science Journalism Summer School 2017

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Every two years, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) hosts its one-day Science Journalism Summer School. The 2017 event took place on 5 July at the Wellcome Trust in London, and I went along as a budding freelance science writer to learn a few tricks of the trade.absw-logo

I was joined by 135 other delegates on the airy and light sixth floor of the Trust’s superb glass-fronted Euston Road building on one of the hottest days of the year. With me were undergraduates, PhD students, freelancers of many kinds, and established science journalists working for a range of organisations. Oh – and a colleague (Clare Gee) from my Masters course in Science Communication here at UWE! Billed as a 12-hour working day, I indeed arrived for coffee at 9am, and did not depart until 8.30pm after the superb networking session with commissioning editors from a number of science publications, such as New Scientist.

BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh opened the proceedings, and the format for the rest of the day followed short talks with panel discussion and audience Q&A. We learned about new media trends, particularly around digital news consumption, in the context of the question ‘Where have all the science correspondents/journalists gone?’. ITV’s Science Correspondent Alok Jha extolled the virtues of critical science journalism in the fake news world, asserting the need to communicate conflicts between scientific researchers and cast more light on the imperfections and uncertainties of the scientific endeavour. That doesn’t sit so easily with being a proponent of science, which most of us are.

A session on pitching skills was most revealing, with commissioning editors suggesting that they aren’t receiving enough news pitches (short 250-word pieces) alongside the veritable flood of feature pitches. They were keen to point out that background was largely irrelevant; if the story was good and the source reliable, they’ll take it. And one particularly good tip to remember is that editors often prefer to receive a ‘phonecall, with e-mail used as the follow-up.

The session on investigative reporting left a sense of how good for society the best journalism can be, despite the challenges around funding this type of work in today’s climate. Given the potential risks, freelancers were generally advised to steer clear of investigative reporting!

Cycling science logoPerhaps the highlight for me was the final session on “successful freelancing”. There were personal testimonies of the struggle to get going, to find sources of work, to carve out a niche area of specialisation. Max Glaskin, the successful, award-winning author of the magazine Cycling Science, offered a tremendous insight laced with some dark humour along the way. His successful writing career has allowed him to diversify his sources of income through giving talks, chairing panel discussions and undertaking specialist scientific consultancy.

All-in-all, a long but rewarding day, worth every penny. If you want to meet several commissioning editors in one place at one time and establish relationships, then this biennial Summer School is a good investment of your time and money.

You can read my blog, Sykes on Science, at: www.sykesonscience.wordpress.com

Ben Sykes, MSc Science Communication student, UWE

Steven Pinker’s brilliant book teaches some useful lessons in science writing

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Writing is easy until you learn how to do it.

I still remember my first weeks as a trainee journalist on a local newspaper in Weston-super-Mare. Filled with confidence, I’d sit there in my tartan trousers (I’d spent that last year studying in Glasgow) thinking I’d got it cracked. After all, I could write – I’d been on a journalism course after all.

The thing is, more often than not, my finely crafted prose came back covered in red pen from a sub editor who didn’t like what I’d written and wanted A LOT of changes. A little hurt, I would make the changes. Surely it was them who was wrong?

It took a while, but slowly I realised what they were doing. With their changes, my stories were livelier, clearer and more succinct. And just generally, well, better.

So, in that few months, I learned what was to become my most important lesson as a writer – to learn from others. As I got better I found that, paradoxically, writing had got more challenging – there was much more to think about if I was going to do it well. My stories were still edited and reworked by others as I learned. And it still hurt.

Steven PinkerNow, 20 years into my writing career, up pops a book that crystallises what has been a lot of hard-won knowledge about writing, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style . Had Pinker written it 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of painful lessons.  I can’t claim to have found it myself – I was introduced to it by Lisa Melton, Senior News Editor at Nature Biotechnology , who teaches on our MSc in Science Communication at UWE.

So, in the spirit of saving a few painful lessons, I have distilled a few – but by no means all – of some of the key points Pinker makes that are likely to help science writers.

  • “Good writing is understood with the mind’s eye” is Pinker’s way of saying that when we write we need to create mental pictures in the minds of our readers. And to me, this not only applies to when we’re actively describing something or someone we’ve seen; it’s also when we get down to the nuts and bolts of science writing – explaining processes and mechanisms and systems. When someone can visualise a mechanism inside a cell organelle or how one subatomic particle interacts with another, they’re more likely to get it.
  • Pinker says good writers “use concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary”. In other words, describe what you’re describing vividly, with specific new, fresh words rather than abstractions.
  • Cut out the “metadiscourse” – the use of descriptions of what you are going to describe; words such as subsection, review and discussion. Pinker puts it far better than I could. “Inexperienced writers often think they’re doing the reader a favour by guiding her through the rest of the text with a detailed preview. In reality, previews that read up link a scrunched-up table of contents are there to help the writer, not the reader.”

Pinker also describes what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge” – the inability for someone to understand what it’s like for someone else to not know what they know. I’ve found as a science writer, it’s not just scientists who can fall victim to this curse (and not all of them do). But writers can too. If you’ve spent days or weeks researching a topic, you become a ‘mini expert’ and may struggle to explain things in a way non-experts would understand. Pinker does come up with some useful tips – such as avoid jargon and technical language. Nothing earth shattering there. And adding brief explanations for technical terms. Again, not rocket science. The big challenge is recognising when to do it.

Andy Ridgway

Writing

The long and winding road to science journalism

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How do you get your first job in science communication? That’s not a straightforward question to answer – when it comes to science journalism at least. My experience of working in the industry showed me that having some kind of experience – either in the form of a placement or a few articles published – can be invaluable. Just as important as any qualification, in fact. And if you’ve won some form of recognition for your writing – perhaps through a competition – that can have a big impact on your job prospects too. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are as many routes into science writing as there are science writers.

It’s out of this experience that the UWE SCU Science Writing Competition was born. Targeted specifically at those who haven’t had popular science writing published before, it is now in its second year.

Given its target audience of new writers, this year we (the SCU that is) decided to provide writing advice in the form of blogs from the judges and other respected science writers, including one of last year’s winners – Emily Coyte .

There were another couple of important additions too, including a partnership with the Royal Institution – an organisation with a track record for nurturing new talent – and a survey of the competition participants aimed at gaining a fuller picture of the opportunities and barriers they face in breaking in to the science writing industry. The survey makes for interesting reading.

For starters, all of the 49 people who took part in the survey (out of roughly 90 competition entries) said they were interested in a career in science writing in some form – some as full time writers or editors and others envisaged writing as a sideline to a career in research science. Many participants were students and most (almost 90%) had not had any form of science writing training. Of those who hadn’t had training, a fairly high proportion (45%) said they were not aware of any training courses.

However, it’s where the responses to this survey – from those who want to be science writers – are compared with the responses from another survey we conducted – from those who are already science writers – that things get really interesting. But this isn’t the place to go into any detail on that – there will be more on that later. So watch this space…

As for this year’s science writing competition, the shortlist has now been drawn up and the judges will meet in August to decide the winners, who will be announced on 1 September 2016.

Andy Ridgway