I entered into a discussion recently with some acquaintances from the Natural History Museum on what we each felt was the primary purpose of our roles as science communicators. There were three of us there and each had a different part to play in communicating science: there was the researcher, the facilitator for large scale science discussions at the NHM and me – the student and passionate science communicator who has dabbled in a range of random science roles. As we all shared a passion for science and shouting about it to the world, we understood that we all had similar views and objectives in communicating science, but interestingly when we came to say out loud or underlying reason for this passion we found we all had differing opinions.
The researcher’s aim was to inspire the new generation of experts in their fields (or mini-me’s as he liked to call them). Although, he admitted, this may seem a slightly self-centred approach to science communication the reason behind it is to enable the public (and especially the younger generations) to get as much enjoyment and wonder out of his chosen profession as he did. The facilitator’s feelings were slightly different, albeit well placed for her current profession: to help eliminate the scientist/public boundary and encourage dialogue between the average Joe and the fully fledged researcher. My own primary aim when communicating science is to provide people with the logistical thinking skills they need to be able to form their own educated opinions on any subject. I personally feel that the skills that scientists use on a daily basis which get wrapped up into the phrase ‘looking at the evidence’. I think that this is a skill that is not just important if you are a scientist, but can be put to use every day – when you watch the news or buy a new product or foodstuff. I think that science communication is a perfect way to do this, as it inspires people in the process, and has the added possibility of exciting someone enough to become the researchers very own ‘mini-me’ in a science subject.
The fact that we all had different aims when thinking about science communication is a beautiful example of the diversity of this type of profession. Science communication goes well beyond just telling someone that smoking equals cancer, it looks much deeper into the why behind this end-point that many people may never see or understand. And that why in itself has so many facets of reasoning behind it that it can be used to inspire so many people.
Looking at other sources to see what science communication is all about, I found heaps of material. Groups on LinkedIn have lots of discussions about the purpose of science communication and the challenges we may face in the future for the way in which we can communicate and why we may need to do it – e.g. will the purpose of communication go beyond just the science in the future and begin to be a major influence in policy making and implementation? The way we communicate is changing too, blogging and social media is becoming a powerful tool in disseminating research by researchers, and is actively encouraged as part of science publications. The London School of Economics and Political Science has also produced a guide for academics to use Twitter to disseminate and enhance their research, and the best ways to use those 140 little characters.
The discussion on how science communication should evolve leads me to another discussion I had recently with an art director friend of mine on the place and purpose of art in science communication. In my view, part of the future of communication lies within the combination of art and science. However, I feel very strongly about the way in which it is presented. If a piece of art is to be displayed, it needs to be made clear whether the piece was purely inspired by science and is now an artistic concept, or whether it is trying to demonstrate a genuine scientific concept. If it is the latter, then participating scientists’ should ensure that the artist really understands the underlying scientific concepts, and that when describing their work to the public, the science is clearly and concisely communicated and not confused with artistic license.
My artist friend was taken aback with my scepticism, and stressed that going into too much detail about the scientific concept or explaining too much of the piece would ruin the artistic nature of it – art needs no explanation. But personally I think this is where art and science clash. Science does need an explanation, and as expressed by myself and the facilitator at the NHM, it is the explanation behind the end point that needs communicating to break down those barriers between the public and the researcher and eliminate the that catch all phrase of ‘and then science happens’ (abra-cadabra) and suddenly you are being told cherry tomatoes give you cancer. There needs to be a boundary, where it is either art meets science or art communicates science, and that boundary needs to be clear. Yes, it may mean that artists have to rein in their artistic flair for just a little, but if you are going to develop a collaboration between such disciplines there needs to be some concessions – on both sides.
As my masters course draws to an end, I have been thinking more and more about science, communication and the wider public interested (or not) in science. So far my jobs have involved me interacting directly with the public, whether that be informally for entertainment, in a formal educational environment or with adults and experts. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with people, and some of my best work memories are of when I see that light of comprehension in someone’s face and I know that they are going to go back and look at the gravel in their back garden with more interest from now on. Or when I help five year old kids ‘discover’ a dinosaur skeleton and they say its been the best time of their life (until they discover there is a play area downstairs).
I have now discovered a new realm of science communication however, which goes beyond the immediate audiences of Edinburgh or London and uses press, the media and publishing as the route to more international participation in fast paced scientific research, museums and heritage conservation, communications and debates. After a visit with the masters course to the press office of the British Museum, and a chat with one of the press officers from Nature publishing, I can safely say that I was inspired by the work they did and will now be pursuing a line of work in press/public relations and/or liaising with institutions to communicate to a wider public.