Modernising the iconic Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

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A team of Science Communication Unit researchers was selected by the Royal Institution (Ri) to explore ways to continue modernising the Christmas Lectures, an iconic series that has run since 1825. Margarida Sardo, Hannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series, created for children and televised annually for the past 50 years fronted by presenters including David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

A centrepiece of the national conversation about the place of science in our lives, the lectures were started by scientist Michael Faraday in 1825 and are now designed to be engaging and mind-expanding viewing for people of all ages but particularly children. A series of three on a single topic, the lectures are filmed in London in mid-December every year then broadcast on three consecutive days during the Christmas period. In 2018, biological anthropologist, author and TV presenter Alice Roberts and genetics expert Aoife McLysaght brought the evolutionary story to life in a series called ‘Who Am I?’

Aoife McLysaght and Alice Roberts. Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Following interviews with children attending the 2017 and 2018 events, a social media analysis of the 2018 broadcasts and survey of science enthusiasts, researchers found the lectures were cherished by audiences of all ages but format changes could help broaden their appeal among young people, as well as older audiences. They recommended exploring ways that the channel and time of the broadcasts (currently BBC4 at 8pm) could be made more suitable for a younger audience, including cutting the lectures down into short clips for social media to reflect changing viewing habits.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

The research team noted that some adult viewers believed the lectures were so focused on a younger audience that they lacked appeal for older viewers. To continue to attract a significant adult audience, they recommended creating a companion lecture aimed at older science fans.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Researchers also found audience members enjoyed the live shows, particularly the engaging, interactive and high-quality demonstrations. TV viewers valued the televised shows and many remarked that watching with relatives had become a family tradition. But some science enthusiasts suggested the Ri needed to re-evaluate its target audience and questioned whether the needs of a live lecture and a TV programme were being confused. Viewers were roundly supportive of female scientists presenting the show, with particular praise reserved for the performance of Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght in 2018.

The Christmas Lectures branding includes the prestigious Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC, as well as live shows, a Schools Conference, the Ri Advent Calendar and “I’m a Scientist… get me out of here” – most of which were covered by the evaluation.

The full evaluation report can be accessed here.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

From the lab to science communication, exploring creativity, evaluation and Wonder

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During my undergraduate degree in biochemistry I spent a year studying abroad in Grenoble in the French Alps. I studied in the university for some of the time, and also did a 5 month placement in a research lab.  Although interesting, it was enough to show me that a career in research was perhaps not for me, so I spent much of time gazing dreamily at the mountains wondering what else I could do.

Grenoble_credit_Flickr_ Mariusz Kucharczyk

I liked working in the laboratory, but I realised I really wanted to be on the outside, telling people about all of the exciting things that were going on inside. So when I came back for my final year I persuaded my supervisors to let me do a science communication project for my final project, rather than a bench research project, and I was hooked!

The UWE Bristol MSc Science Communication programme gave me an opportunity to work part time at Science Oxford – a small but influential charity that works to encourage the pursuit of science and enterprise. I was delivering workshops and shows to schools and the public, and also ran the regional STEM Ambassador programme, finding and training scientists and engineers across the region to work with schools too.

I always wanted to work in a museum or a science centre, so when I took the MSc I was keen to focus on the modules relating to delivering science communication face to face. I remember being inspired by people from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Royal Society, at-Bristol (as it was then known) who we met during the course, and they all motivated me to use my wide range of interests – art, music, family learning as well as science – to tell stories and create conversations.

Jo Lewis at CERN

I also loved the Science on Air and Screen module, some of which took place at the BBC. At the time I would listen to a lot of radio (before the days of podcasts which now feature heavily in my down time!) and I loved working in a small team to produce both a short radio show about ‘progress’, including a poet as a live guest, and a short TV piece about Healthy Living Day. Although I haven’t gone on to work in broadcast media the lessons on how to sum up coherently yet colloquially have come in handy when I’ve been interviewed for radio or TV, including for BBC Stargazing Live and local radio.

My Masters project was an evaluation of a set of touchable exhibits at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Finally a chance to do some work in a museum setting! I devised and piloted a series of protocols to help the museum evaluate how families were using their new exhibition. I now use these skills every day in my job as Public Engagement Development Manager for the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), one of the UK research councils.  A key component of my job has involved producing an evaluation framework for a complex programme of work. As STFC is a funder as well as a delivery body, we aim to measure and evaluate events and activities run by around 40 partners a year reaching in excess of 500,000 people face to face, and a further 2.5 million via online and broadcast media to better report, improve and celebrate what we do.

Jo Lewis at Boulby Mine

My favourite part of the job has got to be working with scientists and engineers who love what they do and who are really keen to share their enthusiasm with others. I work with them to help them to do so in a way that is engaging, will genuinely appeal to the audience they are wishing to engage – ensuring they have thought about who that is! – and then hear all their brilliant creative ideas for how to communicate their area of research to others!

I’ll also be using all of these skills in a new large project coming up called Wonder. The launch of Wonder marks a long-term commitment by STFC public engagement to move our focus towards audience-driven public engagement with under-served communities in the most socioeconomically-deprived areas of the UK. We want more working with people, and less delivering to people. The project is still in early days, but it means that I’ve been able to feed in ideas right from the start and use many of the skills I learned on the MSc – from reading lots of publications and reports that others have written to be sure we are using current good practice, to writing a brief for an external evaluation consultant.

Jo Lewis, 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

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