Last Friday I had the great pleasure to speak at the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Alumni (MCAA) annual conference, in a session about how to get started in science communication and public engagement. The session was great, with an engaged and curious audience of researchers from the MSCActions scheme, and really interesting panel members in the form of Sofie Vanthournout, Director of Sense about Science EU, and Dominka Bijos, a medical instruction designer for Delta Kn and MCAA member, as well as our chair, Calum MacKichan, MCAA chair of communications and Publications Officer for the European Plant Science Organisation.
As the discussion was so good, and the questions really important ones, I thought I’d summarise them in a blog post for posterity! Here goes…
A quick guide to getting involved in science communication and public engagement:
Both Dominika and I shared our experiences of getting involved by just saying yes the first time an opportunity came up. The easiest way is to get involved is to say yes to something that someone asks you to do, whether that be speaking to a group of adults one evening, going to a school as part of a careers fair, or writing an opinion piece for a newspaper. This way someone else is going to do a lot of the organisational work (the teacher, your lab-mate, the university, the editor…). Hopefully it will go well, and you’ll be starting on your own engagement journey, but if you don’t enjoy it, you don’t ever have to do it again. At least you tried!
Try things out
As you get more comfortable with engagement, you can try some new ways to communicate and engage. There are so many options available to you, and what you will be good at might depend on all sorts of factors like the time you have available, and your other hobbies, interests and skills. As it turns out, after many years of giving workshops in schools and public presentations, I realised I’m not that great at presenting science, but I am brilliant at managing things, and bringing people together to work on a project together. So now, that’s the role I take. You might find that you don’t enjoy live radio interviews, but you love to record podcasts, or you really don’t enjoy writing for blogs but you do get a lot out of twitter. If you are already in an amateur theatre group, you might like to work with them on creating a play that involves your research. Having a go is really the best way to see what suits you.
Good engagement and communication are like any other skills, they take practice. You wouldn’t expect a band to go on stage without rehearsing, so why would someone giving a talk do that? Work on your talks, your writing, your presentation skills, your comedy skills, dancing, drawing, whatever you need to make your activity high quality. That way both you and your audience will get the most from it.
I know, I know, I already told you to say yes. But engagement stops being enjoyable once you are under too much pressure, and certainly for those of you in academia there are already many other pressures on your time. Prioritise what you get involved with based on you interests, time and values, so that you can be at your best. Your public will thank you for it!
Many grant applications or job roles now expect me to include public engagement in my work, but it’s not something I have much experience with, it’s not my thing. What can I do?
Collaborate. Collaboration is the best way to make sure your first ventures in engagement go well. It might be that you can work with others in your department on an activity they have already set up, or that you might work with an outreach programme from your university or institution that has existing public events, or that you have a friend who leads a dance class who are interested to do something with your work. If you have those other interested and experienced people around you, making something work for you won’t be too hard.
Do you think science communication is something every researcher should be made to do?
No. Fundamentally no. Once this work becomes something that is enforced, then the joy will be sucked out of it, the researcher will resent it, and the audience will respond badly. The research, including my own, backs this up. However, I do believe that everyone can find a type of public engagement that works for them with a little help, and that academia should have a general culture of engagement that supports this work in order to do its best for society. If you don’t have a local public engagement officer or network to help you find what works for you, feel free to get in touch!
What about difficult subjects, such as the use of animals in research? Might we not be at risk if we talk about this; after all, some labs have been attacked.
Involving the public in discussions about research is the best way to counteract the negative opinions of subjects like this. Until recently research, particularly science, was often done behind closed doors, making it difficult for the public to know why it is done the way it is, and even more difficult again to trust the outcomes. Engaged research means that researchers are seen as people, with lives, families, hobbies, and makes science much more part of everyday life. In turn, this means that the decisions researchers make, such as who to include in a clinical trial, to spend money on launching a satellite, to turn on the Large Hadron Collider, or explore the impacts of a new treatment on animals prior to human testing, make much more sense and are more easily empathised with. That’s not to say that there won’t ever be extremists who take extraordinary actions, but it becomes increasingly unlikely, and importantly they won’t have public support.
I’d like a career in science communication, but it seems like the competition is high. How can I get my first break?
A tricky one! Keep trying… you will get there eventually. You can improve your chances by contacting the job advertisers ahead of application, to learn their values and interests so you can tailor your application accordingly. Include evidence of your activity, such as hyperlinks to videos or websites that include elements of your work, or perhaps send in a portfolio or images to support your application. The three most common mistakes I’ve come across when reviewing applications are quite simple to avoid, and might really help. The first is to remember that there are lots of people out there who do science communication in a variety of ways. I’ve received hundreds of applications from people who have told me that they are the first person to think of having a fun approach to science for kids, or a science podcast. Take the time to research what else people are doing and frame your experience in that context. I would have been impressed to hear why those people thought their approaches were different from others, or how they built on existing knowledge. Secondly, google the organisation you are applying to, to find out what they do and how they do it. And as mentioned, ring them up and ask. I’ve done too many interviews with people who don’t really know what we do, or even can’t remember the name of the organisation. Nerves and forgetfulness are fine, but laziness isn’t. Finally, CV’s for jobs outside of academia should be no more than 2 sides of A4. It’s not a lot of room, I know, but honestly, if I get 100 applications, I don’t have time to read your publication list. Keep the information recent and relevant.
How can I get my organisation to be more supportive of public engagement and sci com?
Great question... I might have to do another post about that!
There were more questions, and lots of suggestions for ways you can get involved. Sense about Science are running their #askforevidence campaign, as well as workshops to help you stand up for science. Pint of Science is expanding, and there's maybe a Bright Club near you. Whatever you get involved with, I hope you enjoy it!