stem cells in their environment

SciComm14 - How science is communicated

06 May 2014
By Christine Weber

Last Friday I had the exciting opportunity to attend my first science communication conference: SciComm14, a project of the British Science Association which was held at the University of Surrey this year. Having been to science conferences only so far, I must say that my expectations were initially mixed and then certainly exceeded by what I found at the event. Among the most striking impressions - at least from my viewpoint as PhD student and active researcher rather than science communicator - was the ease with which delegates connected and communicated. There was an extensive offer of networking opportunities, speed networking, workshops with group discussions or just random chats around the coffee table, which made it refreshingly easy to talk to a wide range of people I hadn't met before. I was thrilled to find a very welcoming and open-minded community in the science communicators. Delegates generally seemed happy to share ideas without the underlying competitiveness or ostentation you sometimes find during research meetings (I admit I might be biased on this one).

SciComm14.Photo courtesy of Dr Suze Kundu.

In this report I'd like to point out some of the topics that were covered in sessions I attended (unfortunately I had to miss out on the Thursday meeting). My perspective might be somewhat different given that I'm only starting to tap into the fascinating world of science communication and have to compare it to the world of academia, which I am currently working in. However, I was happy to find that many ex-researchers populate the community, having decided to devote their energy to the advancement of science in a different way - off the bench - while still retaining and nurturing their enthusiasm for the subject.

The plenary session addressed changes in science communication over the last 12 years and was led by Emily Dawson, Amy Sanders, Sir Robert Worcester and Jonathan Sanderson, and chaired by Steve Cross. While things have improved in many sectors, I was disappointed to hear that they still only reach a very limited middle-class audience and there are not many successful strategies to make science more accessible for underprivileged groups in the UK. However, the general public has a high opinion of science - with an upward trend even - and scientists were voted number 3 in a list of most trusted jobs (interestingly, university researchers were seen as more trustworthy than those working for industry - thanks for the appreciation, I guess).

Next, I attended a very interesting discussion about the perks and perils of freelancing, which gave plenty of insight into the lifestyles of freelancers Greg Foot, Ed Yong, Timandra Harkness and Ellen Dowell, their coping-strategies as well as the advantages over being employed. As part of a lively exchange of ideas, the speakers came up with a pretty comprehensive list of approaches to increase productivity and focus at work. This was particularly enjoyable and useful for me, as I am currently writing up my thesis and, most days, find myself in a sort of 'freelance-mode' as well (yes, I am indeed procrastinating as I'm producing this article, but what can I do?). The following session was rather thought-provoking, dealing with the role of women in science and how science communicators should represent them.

Last year, I dedicated one of my blog posts to this issue and the group discussions (very capably moderated by the fantastic Suze Kundu, Laurie Winkless, Heather Williams and Jon Wood) raised similar points but in addition provided a wealth of new ideas about what to focus on next. One of the main encouraging thoughts I took out of this meeting was the assurance that we need more female role-models and we should get used to the idea of being role-models ourselves. It took me a while to realise it whilst I was sitting among them, but in this session I finally found some of the women that had gone 'missing' from the science benches. They were still active, arguing their cause from a different angle and putting a lot of thought into how things could be changed. My last session then covered three remarkable examples of science education: Science Made Simple (presented by Wendy Sadler), Mad Science (run by Jonathan Longfellow) and The Big Van Theory (by Eduardo Saenz de Cabezon).

There were of course several other programmes running in parallel that I could not attend. Overall, a series of equally excellent talks by communicators who undoubtedly know what they're doing. A laid-back atmosphere and a lot of bonding between people who share the same enthusiasm and discipline but are spread over a vast network of independent, separate sectors that are not necessarily interconnected.

Prior to the conference I had no idea that there were so many different jobs out there that qualify as science communication. It is certainly a risky and insecure sector, as everything science-related is. But it's a very rewarding one which, in the days of funding cuts and a distorted view of science in the media, seems to be more important than ever: educating people to base their decisions on facts and identify reliable information sources rather than being blindly manipulated by opportunists; raising awareness and money for science; and recruiting the next generation of researchers.

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