By Euan Paterson, communications and media officer, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)
It was at a recent marine biology conference that a research colleague of mine had his science communications ‘Eureka moment’.
It came during a session when the presenter confessed she was not a good communicator – because she was ‘a scientist’. My colleague winces as he recalls the collective acceptance of this statement from others in the room that day.
“Would she have stood up in front of a room full of academics and admitted she wasn’t good at stats, or graphs?” he told me. “She would have been judged for that, yet she felt fine about being a bad science communicator.”
From that point on, he committed to making communications part of his job, not a necessary evil required by a funder, or something to do when he had some spare time.
I came into science communications from a newspaper background, not a science one. I had been curious about what I deemed a lack of news flow between published science and the news stands. Over the past five years in my current role, the reasons for this have become clearer.
Firstly, the myth that scientists are, by nature, poor communicators is a serious problem and entirely unfounded. In my experience, scientists are passionate about their work and are delighted to share their knowledge.
The problem comes down to language and information overload. Within academic circles – and most notably in published academic papers – researchers must use certain words and terms that have specific meanings. They speak a certain language – let’s call it ‘academese’.
Now, when they tell me what they’ve been doing at the weekend, they don’t describe how they ascended an orogenic landform at a gradient of ‘x’ to the height of ‘y’. Neither do they speak to me in Chinese. Instead, they tell me they climbed a mountain.
If I then want to know how high or steep the mountain was, I can ask. I’m already engaged by the interesting ‘headline’ of climbing a mountain. The detail can come next. If the opening line had been to explain the elements that make up the rock in the mountain, I could become easily confused and perhaps wonder how this story was relevant.
Avoiding academese or jargon and employing everyday language to explain their science to the general public is well within the capabilities of these clever people. It is just more of an effort.
When I inform a scientist about a media request for an interview, the response can be one of dread. Rather than seeing the opportunity to share their research, the thought of a media interview is approached as a pseudo-viva, a forensic examination of their findings. This reaction often puts scientists into a largely defensive ‘peer-review mode’ that can sometimes infringe on the telling of the story. In reality, the public, via the journalist, does not expect a public flogging and just wants to learn something.
Dr. Jordan Grigor of SAMS who studies copepods in the Arctic and often updates his social media followers on his research © E. Paterson
The adoption of social media apps, particularly Twitter, is making it easier for researchers to share their knowledge. Limited character counts encourage scientists to think about the key message behind the work.
Social media can also be a window into daily tasks, things that may seem mundane but are new and interesting to the man on the street. That insight is changing the outdated notion of a scientist being someone in a lab coat firing up Bunsen burners before adopting ‘The Thinker’ pose.
There are many ways to share research findings, and to anyone thinking they are too busy to do it, I’ll let my aforementioned colleague have the final say: “One Instagram post can potentially be seen by millions of people. That changes how people view your institution, you and your science. That’s the kind of busy I’d like to be!”
Euan Paterson is the communications and media officer for the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban. He previously worked in the newspaper industry for 13 years. As well as being responsible for news content and staff training at SAMS, he also manages communications work packages on research projects and supports science communication training of students.
SAMS is Scotland’s largest and oldest independent marine science organisation and is dedicated to delivering marine science for a healthy and sustainable marine environment through research, education and engagement with society.