Monday, 18 June 2012

Communicating science

Posted by Jean Adams

Not so long ago, I promised never to do another degree again. This came after finally completing an MSc in Psychology and Health in London. For 20 long weeks I caught the early flight to London each Thursday morning, attended lectures for two days, and then struggled to make it back to Newcastle before midnight on Friday evening. I learnt some stuff. I did an interesting dissertation that I’m still pretty pleased with. But overall, the effort was not worth the gain.

But another fellowship application, and another blank ‘training plan’ section, and I found myself thinking that the only thing I needed to do to become an ‘independent researcher’ was a Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication – at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. A PGCert isn’t a degree anyway. So it’s not like I was breaking a promise.

Love the box hedge logo at UWE Frenchay campus
So let’s be clear: Bristol is further from Newcastle than London is. The travelling was longer, more expensive and more arduous this time; each trip was three days, rather than two. But, I only had to make six trips. And, most importantly, I learnt so much more during those six trips than I did from the 20 I made to London.

In a nutshell, I learnt that it’s all about story. Communicating stuff is about narrative. Communicating difficult science to people who aren’t necessarily that interested in it, is about telling a good story. You catch people’s attention with a compelling tale, then once you’ve got them hooked, you can slip in whatever you want – complex methods, difficult concepts, mashed swede, whatever.

Which is not exactly rocket science. But, you know, the science communication field is full of used-to-be scientists – if they were rocket scientists, they might have stayed in science.

I also got to do some pretty cool other stuff. I edited a (pretend) travel magazine, I set up a blog, I recorded and edited a podcast, I got totally over-excited in the Knit-a-Neuron workshop, I bought a copy of The Sunday Telegraph – for research purposes (which wasn’t that cool, but it’s certainly something I’ve never done before). In order to complete my writing portfolio, I attended a conference and pretended I was journalist, not a researcher. At the end of each day I wrote a 500 word news article on something I had heard. It made the whole experience a whole lot more immediate and exciting.

Which is all well and good, Dr. Adams, and we are certainly trying to encourage our staff to do more in the way of 'public engagement', but not at the expense of research excellence and impact.

I think this stuff is important for research excellence and impact too. Good research papers also tell good stories. Not necessarily in the same way that a newspaper or novel does, but without narrative your paper is just a series of facts (or, if you’re a social scientist, just a series of 'facts'). That's why you remember some research papers so much better than others. Ditto good grant applications, teaching sessions, and conference presentations.

So, I’m thinking about doing a degree in creative writing.

Only joking.

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