Standing up for Science
Here’s a post from Mariana Arroja, a PhD student in the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, talking about her recent experiences at a Voice of Young Science workshop hosted by the University of Glasgow. Glasgow hosts this workshop on an annual basis so look out for emails about this next Autumn if you’d like to attend. Mariana also took part in the 3 minute thesis competition (3MT®) in 2014, which is a great way to improve your public speaking skills, so look out for details of how to enter 3MT® on this blog in January.
Public engagement is an important part of every academic scientist’s career. Yet, no matter how confident we might be in explaining our research to fellow scientists, communicating it to the public in a way that is understandable whilst avoiding misinterpretation can be challenging. Young scientists may particularly struggle with getting their research out there into the public domain and the idea of dealing with the media can be quite terrifying. So, what is the best way to communicate our work and to address the media?
In September, I attended a “Standing Up for Science” media workshop at the University of Glasgow, organised by Sense about Science. The workshop consisted of three distinct discussion panels and its aim was to encourage all early career researchers (PhD students and post-docs) to stand up for science by engaging with the public and addressing scientific misconceptions.
The first session focused on what can happen when scientific announcements go wrong and how to prevent and tackle them. Here, I had the opportunity to hear personal accounts of academics who had interacted with the media. It was great to learn that the majority of experiences were positive and when information gets distorted, it is possible to restore the facts. For example, by writing a polite reply to the newspaper clarifying the claims or by asking which questions will be addressed in advance.
The media is often accused of deliberately distorting information in order to sell more newspapers, have more online traffic or create sensational headlines. But at the same time, it is clear that with the volume of information available nowadays through online sources, facts can be more easily changed due to lack of journalistic expertise. For this reason, I found the workshop’s discussion on the role of journalists in communicating science the most compelling. It was pointed out that journalists often have to write multiple stories in a short amount of time, hence, increasing the chance for inaccuracies. However, as professionals, reporting false information could also damage their careers and therefore, when it occurs, it is usually not intentional. In order to prevent this, scientists should prepare in advance the key messages they want to convey and keep it as simple as possible.
Getting our voices out there is easier said than done. What about those typical early career insecurities? “Would anyone want to hear what I have to say? Would I become a target? How do I fight lack of confidence?”
The last part of the workshop focused on answering these questions. To get your research out into the public domain, the panellists advised it is important to start writing as much as possible via blogs or social media. If you need any advice, you can talk to your University press officer who can offer help about how to communicate your work. Plus, you could get involved in Voice of Young Science (VoYS), a network of early career researchers who stand up for science, and in a range of events such as Pint of Science, 3Minute Thesis Competition and FameLab UK.
Overall, attending this workshop was an amazing experience and I highly recommend it to others. I had the opportunity to participate in incredibly engaging discussions as well as network with fellow young scientists. More importantly, it introduced me to Voice of Young Science (VoYS), which made me realise that I, too, can stand up for Science.