Sense about Science: VoYS ‘Standing up for Science’ workshop

Sense about Science: VoYS ‘Standing up for Science’ workshop

This is a guest post from Emily Armstrong, a plant epigenetics researcher at UofG. In this post, Emily talks about a recent Voice of Young Science workshop, and what the media can do for ECRs. You can find her on Twitter as @emilyXarmstrong, on instagram as @theradicalbotanical, & blogging about science, communication, & PhD life.  

Researchers (ECRs): Are we qualified to speak on our subject? Absolutely. Do we automatically have the tools and confidence to navigate science:media intersections, ensuring our research is accurate represented? Nope.

Sense about Science is a charity, empowering the public to critically analyse evidence supporting scientific claims and discoveries. Voice of Young Science (VoYS) is a programme created by Sense about Science to encourage ERCs to dismantle pseudoscience, fake news, and pervasive misinformation through empowering ERCs to stand up for their science. I was lucky enough to be awarded a place at VoYS workshop’ held at the University of Edinburgh, and left feeling empowered, confident, and excited about what the media can do for me and my ECR peers.

There are loads of different ways to get your research out to the nebulous ‘general public’. Social media is a great place to start, but be aware that you might be feeding into your own Twitter-sphere echo-chamber. The public probably don’t care about that specific thing you’ve spent five months troubleshooting (unlike your specialist Twitter followers). They care about easy to access, big hitting, engaging scientific news pieces. ‘But my research isn’t any of those things!’ well, you’d be surprised. Assistant professor at the University of Stirling, Mario Vallejo-Marin, reminds us our big breaks could be anywhere. Chatting to a journalist at a party, he shared his discovery of a new species of flower in a small village in Stirling. The story was picked up locally and nationally in TV and print media, meaning his new floral discoveries have been frequently covered since.

We can’t rely on encounters at parties to get our stories to the press, but we can rely on our confidence, experience, and knowledge as scientists. Most universities or research institutes have their own press, communications, or PR offices; facilitating knowledge exchange and accessibly feeding your new discovery outside of your direct research community. They may also offer practice sessions so you can familiarise yourself with translating your research, and work on areas you are not confident on. We can also write our own press releases, start early, and keep practicing. The sooner you get your name out there, the better. Try to include a list of approachable academics in your press releases, exclude over-complicated jargon, don’t over-hype your findings, and most importantly, don’t go on a long holiday just after you’ve released a life changing piece of research.

How do we cooperate and engage with journalists as ECRs? And where do we find them to engage in the first place? Freelance journalists, Jane Feinmann & Wendy Grossman, alongside BBC Scotland Rural Affairs correspondent Kevin Keane, offered their advice on navigating and optimising these interactions. Our science is complicated, and there’s no point in disguising that, but we must make sure any journalist understands and simplifies your complex story into something accessible for everyone. It’s our responsibility to ensure our science is correctly simplified, as Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh Sergio Della Sala states: It’s much easier to remember a mistake or falsehood, even if proved false after. Specialist science journalists are hard to come by, so it is important to reduce jargon but use truthful language. If your simplification doesn’t hold up, work on it until it truly reflects your research endeavours. How about accessing journalists? Your press office should have well established contacts in the field, but if you don’t have access: Twitter. This is where social media really comes into its own, and allows ECRs to engage and share their research directly into their journalists feeds.

 Image provided

Image provided

Our panellists succinctly distilled their collective knowledge for ECRs when discussing research with journalists, and the public: don’t waffle, and know the points you want to make inside out, practice and remember them. Don’t over-hype your research, the more spurious claims you make, the less likely the journalist will believe your actual findings (Sumner et al. 2014). Be a politician: just answer the questions you want to answer, and in the way you’ve practiced. Don’t be fooled into answering questions you aren’t certain on. Be clear: state what we know and what we don’t know, and don’t share unpublished or unverified results without explicitly stating they need repeating. Transparency is key, and ECRs must foster a trusting environment between themselves, journalists, and the public. It’s worth pointing out that TV interviews with scientists last for 15-30 seconds, can you condense your research into that? And can you make sure an 8 year old will understand it? If not, practice on everyone and anything until you’ve nailed it.

But, what happens when science:media intersections aren’t elegantly navigated? What happens when it all goes wrong? How should ERCs best deal with it? Balance, bias, and consensus, are all common themes in scientific research, but this doesn’t always translate on-screen or in-print. Associate dean of research at the University of Dundee, Claire Halpin, shared her experiences surrounding the first (and last) GM poplars grown in Scotland in 1995. An ECR at the time, she planted a plot of trees with the aim to improve processing for paper and timber. Initially, media attention was mostly positive, but unbalanced reporting and ‘scare-mongering’ tactics lead to Claire’s research being destroyed. Claire underlined how vital it is for ECRs to provide a sense of balance, discrediting unreliable studies and unevidenced claims.

Kevin Keane stressed how important proportional representation of scientific views is: climate change, GM foods, and vaccinations are hotly contested topics in the media. The main problem is that vocal scientists aren’t openly contesting them in an accessible way. The public are relying on a 1:1 ratio of supporters/deniers debating in the media. This makes for good TV, but may not be representative of the scientific community’s findings. The support/denial ratio may be closer to 10000:1. The public don’t know this, as only 1:1, balanced coverage is given. This inadvertently gives weight to incorrect and unfounded arguments, and as scientists, we need to call this out and remind the public that scientific consensus doesn’t always translate well on-screen. If you see something being misrepresented, let them know! Offer your advice, pen an op-ed, get on your social media and make your voice heard.

It is vital for ECRs to engage, excite, and enlighten the public; however, many ECRs believe they aren’t good enough. We’d much rather refer a journalist after a big break to our supervisor. Well, we are good enough. We have completed three years of broad training, followed by three, or four more years of in-depth, specific, precise, and vigorous training in our field. We are the experts. And, the public would much rather see a young & engaging face (that’s us) on their screens than an academic stereotype reinforcing the ‘Ivory Tower’ of academia.

A tour-de-force in advice, information, and discussion, I’ve pulled out my personal take home messages of the day:

·         Find the sweet-spot between simplistic language and over-complicated jargon

·         Practice the points you want to make & know them inside out

·         Practice your elevator pitch: can you tell someone what you study in 30 seconds or less?

·         Get yourself known & put yourself out there: it’s never too early to start

·         Tell your research stories to anyone who’ll listen: you don’t know where it might lead

·         Take outreach opportunities presented to you: print, TV, radio, podcast, anything!

·         Be critical: is your story or ideas going to be presented accurately?

·         It’s better to tell a story than risk it not being heard: go out there and speak to everyone

·         Stuck on where to start? Check the science section of the tabloids: simple, clear, & hard-hitting

For more information, you can find some of the day’s panellists on Twitter: @nicrodemo, @wendyg, @JaneFeinmann, @KKeaneBBC. Don't forget to follow @SenseaboutSci& @VoiceofYoungScience while you’re at it, too!

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