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.

MSc Science Communication Part-Bursary Scheme – open for applications

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This year, the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol is able to offer a bursary which will part-fund a place on its renowned MSc Science Communication. The value of the bursary is £1500.

To apply for the bursary, you must have applied for the MSc Science Communication by Friday 5th June 2020 and be wishing to start the course in September 2020. Only those who have been or who are in the process of being offered a conditional or unconditional full time place will be considered eligible. The bursary may only be used on the Science Communication courses offered at UWE Bristol.

The MSc in Science Communication is taught at UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus. If however restrictions due to coronavirus are in place during part of the programme, full teaching will be provided online so that your learning is not effected.

To apply for the bursary, please complete one of the following;

Write a short popular article that is no more than 300 words long on an area of science, health or the environment. The article should include a headline. Also provide brief details of the publication where the article would appear, outlining its audience, the types of article it publishes and why your article is a good fit with the publication – this should be no more than 200 words. The chosen publication should be a newspaper, magazine or website that covers science-related topics for non-experts.

OR

Write an outline for a science communication activity (maximum 500 words) on an area of science, health or the environment. The outline should describe the planned activity, give an indication of content and details of the target audience.

Your work should be emailed to Andy Ridgway (details below) to be received by 5pm on Monday 15th June 2020. You will be informed if you have been successful in your application for a bursary by Friday 3rd July 2020. The successful applicant should inform us if they are subsequently successful in receiving funding from a different source or sponsor i.e. employers, local schemes, so that the bursary may be allocated to a different student.

Further information on UWE Bristol fees, studentship and bursary advice is also available here:

Andy Ridgway, Programme Leader MSc Science Communication

Andy.Ridgway@uwe.ac.uk +44 (0)117 328 3332

If you are not interested in applying for a bursary, the deadline for applications to the programmes remains the 31st July 2020. Please note – we are currently receiving a high number of applications and would encourage you to apply as soon as your application is ready.

How we mapped the vast online science communication terrain

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The number of people writing, tweeting, instagramming, blogging, podcasting, vlogging about all things science is unfathomably large. Then there’s the universities, the charities, the businesses and so on who are adding to the mix. It’s no wonder then that the online science communication terrain isn’t mapped. We know it’s out there, yet exactly who is doing what, where and how is something we only have snapshots of information about. Yet mapping this vast terrain is exactly what we’ve been trying to do within the Science Communication Unit as part of our work on the European Commission-funded RETHINK project .

The RETHINK project involves 10 institutions across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, the European network of science centres. Together, we’re trying to explore how science is communicated online so we can see what’s working well and understand more about what’s going wrong when it’s not, such as the audiences that aren’t being reached. To start this process, we needed a better view of the online science communication terrain in terms of who is doing the communicating, the platforms they are using and the forms their communication takes.

Given the terrain’s scale, we decided to set some boundaries to our exploration. Firstly, in conjunction with the other RETHINK project partners, we decided to concentrate our mapping efforts on three topic areas – climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets. These topics were selected because they are important to all our lives. But they also represent very different online habitats; with different individuals and organisations doing the communicating and very diverse subject matter. It means we get a richer insight into how varied the online science communication landscape is.

Secondly, we limited the number of each type of communicator we would map to 10. So, for example, once we had found 10 universities communicating about climate change, we would stop. Otherwise the mapping would have been an insurmountable task. After all, what we were really aiming to do was to explore the different types of communicator as well as the forms of communication they are involved with. We were mapping the extent of the terrain – how far it reached and what was there – rather than trying to measure the peak of each mountain; the number of specific types of organisation or individual communicating about each topic.

To get an even better view of the terrain, the mapping was carried out by RETHINK team members in seven countries across Europe – Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Serbia as well as the UK. Each country chose two of the three topics they were going to map. Again, to make the exploration more manageable.

To make sure we could compare the online science communication terrains in different countries, the exploration needed to be carried out in exactly the same way in each country.  So Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Science Communication Unit, developed a ‘mapping protocol’ – a set of instructions for researchers in each country to follow when they were exploring.

So what did we find? Well, across the seven countries, 697 different individuals and organisations that communicate climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets were identified. Digging into the data in a little more detail provides some interesting insights, including:

  • Climate change has the widest range of individuals and organisations communicating about it online of the three topics. In other words, it has a particularly rich communication environment.
  • The online science communication landscape is complex – there are large differences in the types of communicators, the platforms used and content shared between science-related subjects.
  • With all three topics, many of the sources of information are not traditional experts, such as scientists or health practitioners. Nor are they traditional mediators of information, such as journalists. There are lots of alternative sources of information, such as non-professional communicators and support communities.

But this is just the start. Having a clearer view of the landscape thanks to our mapping will help with the next stages of RETHINK, such as understanding the connections formed by communicators with their audiences.

For the full report on the online science communication mapping carried out by the RETHINK team across Europe, visit: https://zenodo.org/record/3607152#.Xh1zmRdKjOQ.

To learn more about the project overall visit: http://www.rethinkscicomm.eu/acerca-de/

Within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit, the RETHINK team includes Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp, Clare Wilkinson and Andy Ridgway.

The organisations involved with RETHINK are: Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol, VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Ecsite, Zeppelin University, Germany, SISSA Medialab, Italy, Danish Board of Technology Foundation, ITQB Nova, Portugal, Center for the Promotion of Science, Serbia, Vetenskap and Allmanhet, Sweden.

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.

 

Never say never again…

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After my PhD viva in 2004, I promised myself I’d never again study for a qualification. Having gone straight from A-levels through a degree to a doctorate, I felt as if I just couldn’t learn anything more. But a decade later, I found myself at a career crossroads trying to figure out what to do at the end of my maternity leave.

Inspired by my elder daughter’s curiosity, I set up a blog, Simple Scimum, to answer questions about science and nature. Slowly, as the blog gathered followers, my confidence grew; and when one of my daughter’s friends asked if I would answer her science questions too, I knew I had to turn science writing into something more than a hobby.

I began searching for jobs that involved writing about science and quickly realised that a qualification in science communication would be an advantage. So, I googled ‘sci comm Bristol’ and found UWE’s MSc in Science Communication, which sounded brilliant but was more than I could manage whilst working part-time and looking after two young children. However, the Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication was exactly what I was looking for: a one-year, part-time course with intensive teaching blocks, offering hands-on experience and links to industry. I applied for the September 2016 intake and won a bursary towards my tuition fees: I was going back to university!

I felt nervous about returning to study after such a long break but I knew that this was just the first step along a new career path.

The ‘Writing Science’ module was an obvious choice, with the opportunity to create a magazine and develop a portfolio just too good to miss. I learned the essential elements of journalistic practice and wrote a bylined article for UWE’s Science Matters magazine. But the real highlight was a three-hour workshop on ‘how to write a book’ – I’d love to write science storybooks for children, and came away bursting with ideas, enthusiasm and an action-plan to turn my dream into reality. (Roll on NaNoWriMo…!)

But it was through the ‘Science in Public Spaces’ module that I discovered just how strongly I want to inspire young children and engage them with research. I designed ‘Simon’s Box’ to talk about genetic disease and genome editing with GCSE pupils in local schools. And I had the best time in the Explorer Dome learning about science shows for young audiences. Seeing how to encourage children to learn through stories and play was a fantastic experience and a seminal moment in my desire to become a science communicator.

At times I found it hard to juggle study, work and childcare but the intensive teaching blocks made it easier for me to attend lectures and workshops. I paid for my younger daughter to go to nursery for an extra morning each week and used that time for reading and research. Still, I often found myself studying between 8pm and 10pm, when the kids were tucked up in bed, and I was grateful for 24-hour online access to UWE’s library facilities. But now the hard work is over and I’m just waiting for my final results.

Over the past year, I’ve been part of a supportive cohort of students who are committed to science communication. I’ve developed the confidence to pursue a new career path and given up my old job to become a Research Fellow in UWE’s Science Communication Unit. Before the PGCert, I dreamed of working in science communication but now I’m actually doing it.

Kate Turton

Postgraduate Science Communication students get stuck in on ‘Science in Public Spaces’

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Emma Weitkamp & Erik Stengler

September saw the lecturing staff at the Science Communication Unit welcoming our new MSc Science Communication and PgCert Practical Science Communication students to UWE and Bristol. It also sees the start of our refreshed programme offering, which includes significant changes and updates to two of our optional modules: Science in Public Spaces and Science on Air and On Screen.

The first three-day block of Science in Public Spaces (SiPS) marks the start of a diverse syllabus that seeks to draw together themes around face-to-face communication, whether that takes place in a what we might think of as traditional science communication spaces: museums, science centres and festivals or less conventional spaces, such as science comedy, theatre or guided trails. Teaching is pretty intense, so from Thursday, 29th September to Saturday, 1st October, students got stuck into topics ranging from the role of experiments and gadgets to inclusion and diversity.

Practical science fair

Thursday, 29th September saw the 13 SiPS students matched with researchers from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences. Students were introduced to cutting edge research and have been challenged to think about how this could be communicated to the public in a science fair setting. Each student will work with their researcher to create a hands-on activity which they will have the opportunity to deliver to the public at a science fair to be held during a University Open Day in the spring.

Towards the end of the three days a session on creativity generated intense discussion about how we might judge what creativity is through to practical techniques and tips we might use to stimulate creative thinking. The session included a word diamond (McFadzean, 2000), where groups considered how you might foster engagement and enjoyment amongst blind visitors to the Grand Canyon, how blind visitors could be involved in creating a sensory trail (for sighted people) at an arboretum or how to enable a local community to be involved in decision making around land use that involved ecosystem services trade-offs. Challenging topics that draw on learning from earlier in the week.

sips1

After a final session on connecting with audiences, students (and staff) were looking a little tired; three days of lectures, seminars and workshops is exhausting. We hope students left feeling challenged, excited and ready to start exploring this new world of science communication and public engagement and that they find ways to connect their studies with events and activities they enjoy in their leisure time – though that might not apply to the seminar reading!

Science in Public Spaces got off to an excellent start, thanks to the students for their engaged and thoughtful contributions in class. Up next is the Writing Science module, where Andy Ridgway, Emma Weitkamp and a host of visiting specialists will be introducing students to a wide range of journalistic techniques and theories. Then it will be the turn of the new Science on Air and on Screen where Malcolm Love will introduce students to techniques for broadcasting science whether on radio, TV or through the range of digital platforms now open to science communicators. Looks to be an exciting year!

McFadzean, E. (2000) Techniques to enhance creativity. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 6 (3/4) pp. 62 – 72

 

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

Science Writing Competition now open

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It’s been a busy few weeks in the office getting ready for the UWE Bristol SCU Science Writing Competition 2016. We are looking for 700 words on “the next big thing in science”.

Entrants can be residents anywhere in the world, but must be non-professionals (professional journalists and anyone else who writes for money). All others, including scientists and bloggers, are welcome to apply. There are no residency restrictions, and we have separate categories for under 18s and over 18s. Closing date for applications is 24th June 2016. For full details, please see the SCU website.

We’re excited to have an impressive judging panel on board, who’ve prepared some excellent tips for new science writers. Fascinating stuff for newbies and old-timers alike.

The competition is run by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit (SCU) in partnership with BBC Focus magazine and the Royal Institution.

Behind the scenes at Bristol Museum

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Text by Andy Ridgway, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, images by Marta Palau Franco, euRathlon project manager.

“Artists love this kind of thing,” says Bonnie Griffin, Natural History Curator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The thing in question is a scrawny-looking taxidermy pigeon that’s a victim of moth strike. The moths have stripped away the ‘feathery bits’ of its feathers, the barb, to reveal the rachis – the pointy bits in the middle.

He – or she – was introduced to students on our Masters and Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication during our tour of the Museum’s natural history store, somewhere that’s normally off limits to members of the public. The tour was part of a day spent at the Museum to get an insight into the inner workings of a museum with a vast natural history collection.

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Natural History Curator Bonnie Griffin shows our MSc students some of the extraordinary taxidermy in the natural history store

The pigeon may be one of the less exotic residents of the store but it illustrates the two principle challenges of having such a huge resource; how to make use of a valuable resource when display space is at such a premium and how to stop the objects themselves being eaten or decaying in some other way.

The store has 650,000 residents – all of them dead – and this represents 90-95 per cent of Bristol Museum’s natural history collection. This means there’s only space for 5-10 per cent of the collection to be on display at any one time. It’s not an uncommon problem (and has prompted some at other institutions to consider drastic action).

But ways are being found for the store’s residents to earn their keep. So while the scrawny pigeon is making its living as an artist’s muse (the shiny tropical beetles are popular too), other residents are the object of scientific study. A humming bird, for instance, is giving us a clearer picture of what dinosaur plumage was like – apparently the way the colour and shine are created is the same as would have been the case in dinosaur feathers.

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Mysterious samples make up some of the 650,000 items in the collection

It is Bristol’s history that has led to such a vast collection – its wealthy merchants of past years would pay for specimens from exotic lands to be brought to our shores. And the museum’s proximity to Bristol Zoo is another factor – several of the zoo’s inhabitants have taken up residence in the museum once they have died. Among them is Henry the orangutan, who once shared a cage with his orangutan sweetheart, Ann, at the zoo. Today, the store is taking in fewer new residents and rather than coming from far flung corners of the globe, most of it is roadkill.

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Henry the orangutan, formerly a resident of Bristol Zoo.

 

While moth strike is one of the threats to the natural history collection, pyrite decay (where the sulphite component of the mineral oxidises) is one of the – if not the – biggest threats to the collection in the museum’s geology store. So temperature and humidity down here are continually monitored. In the geology store we were given a guided tour by Senior Natural History Curator Dr Victoria Purewal.

Again it’s the detail known about some of the objects that helps bring them back to life. Take fossil of Pliosaurus carpenteri, that sits on one of the shelves and is the only known example of this species (it’s named after Simon Carpenter, who discovered it at Westbury clay pit in Wiltshire). Thought to be a female, it would have suffered from excruciating toothache in the final years of its life – its fossilised remains revealing signs of a tooth abscess.

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Shelves of fossils, some of them unique finds, in the Bristol Museum store.

Thanks to the staff at the museum for such a fascinating insight into their work – it was a valuable day out for our students.