06 July 2010
By Blanka Sengerová
OK, perhaps I am not quite so "recently written-up PhD student" but this article was written about a year ago for the UKGrad magazine but didn't quite make the editorial cut. I think the sentiment is still important and you may want to read it in conjunction with an article on Standing up for evidence-based science I recently posted on the research staff blog...
Whilst setting up reactions, running gels or during a night stint at the observatory, have you ever thought about telling the public what you do when wrapped up in your labcoat pouring colourful solutions or hidden away in a basement tending to NMR machines? “No way,” I hear you say. “Why would anyone care why my protein/compound/equation (delete as appropriate) does XYZ (insert as appropriate)?” Or even, “No one outside this lab is going to care…”
Perhaps years ago it was acceptable for scientists to hide in labs, strictly separated from the ‘ignorant’ public. It is time to face the fact that this is simply not acceptable anymore, and many of the research councils and funding bodies are encouraging researchers to tell the public about what they do. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, much of the research that we do is funded by the public either through their taxes or through donations to charitable organisations. Secondly, many of the issues raised by scientists today have significant ethical considerations, and it is important that the public and the politicians who ultimately decide policy are well informed about the issues at stake. That way we can avoid another MMR vaccine scare where a single doctor/researcher made a vague claim to link it to autism. As he was more vocal and willing to discuss his results with the public than the 99.9% of doctors who produced results contrary to his claim, it was him that the public heard. Science communication is important, but it can be fun too.
So where to start? As a recently written-up PhD student and a new postdoc, I have dabbled in science communication, and thought others might be interested in some of the opportunities available. Your first port of call is probably your department. Many have an outreach officer working with schools to encourage youngsters to consider studying science in future. With health and safety regulations more and more stringent, the school-based practicals are limited, and there is a danger that children are bored by science. Giving them the opportunity to try some more exciting experiments in a well-equipped laboratory can be a good step to show the potential future scientists what it is about. Personally, during my time as a PhD student I have extracted kiwifruit DNA, built football sized models of buckminsterfullerene, made polymer slime, and carried out chemical reactions to measure rates with children ranging from primary school age right through to sixth formers. Even if your department is not geared towards outreach, there is a scheme called Researchers in Residence (http://www.researchersinresidence.ac.uk/), which teams up researchers with a secondary school, allowing them to discuss their research with the pupils. Thus the researcher gains some valuable communication skills whilst letting the school children get an insight of what research is really about.
Another option is writing for newspapers and magazines. If submitting an unsolicited article seems a little daunting, try entering the annual New Scientist essay competition for PhD students (recently extended to postdocs), organised jointly with the Wellcome Trust. The brief is to explain your work in around 750 words, in a style aimed at the New Scientist reader. I have entered this competition twice and really enjoyed thinking outside the box to explain my research to non-specialists. As a bonus, entrants are invited to the prizegiving dinner, where they can mingle with those in the science communication industry – journalists, editors, museum curators, outreach project managers and so on. Great opportunity for the good old networking!
Finally, you might look at Sense about Science, a charity which aims to promote good science and evidence based information to the public. At regular intervals, they run a ‘Standing up for Science Media workshop’ for early career researchers. The workshops, organised throughout the country, involve a panel discussion with scientists who have some experience of communicating their work in the media, followed by a session with journalists who talk about the science communication story from their end. Importantly, both sessions are interactive with plenty of time for questions from the audience. After attending one of these workshops, I became involved with SAS’s Voice of Young Science network, helping at SAS’s annual lectures and the donors’ reception. Again, this provided a brilliant opportunity to meet plenty of people involved in science communication, journalism, funding, and research itself. If you don’t see yourself at the bench forever, this may be an invaluable source of contacts in your future career…
So…don’t stick your head in the sand and get talking to people about your science – you might be surprised how exciting it is when seeing your work from a slightly different angle!