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Engagement Matters: Standing up for Science

In this Engagement Matters post, Joan Chang, a postdoctoral research scientist in the Division of Cell Matrix Biology & Regenerative Medicine, shares her experience of attending a Standing up for Science workshop and encourages other scientists to engage with the media to help combat misinformation.

Do you remember the last time a news headline made you roll your eyes? “Yeah, sure, another cure for cancer. It’s not that simple!”
A fear-mongering statement overheard at the pub, so irritating you almost spoke up to the person making it? “No, the Large Hadron Collider won’t create a black hole! Also, vaccines work!”
Or an extrapolation so tenuous that made you sigh internally? “Eh, Fast Radio Bursts do not equal alien life …”

It’s easy to brush these off as small everyday irritations that scientists simply have to endure. But these are phenomena that are so much more than that. These are signs that the public are misinformed about fundamental scientific theories or important discoveries, and unless scientists address this head-on, the chasm is only going to widen between “scientists” and “the public”; it is vital that scientists clear up any misunderstanding, and build trust and support from the public.

A great way to build up this trust is to directly engage with the public, help them understand what we actually do, and explain the importance (and coolness) of science. However, while it’s a highly rewarding experience – think wide-eyed wondrous expression on a child’s face, or “Wow, really?!” exclamations from adults – it is logistically impossible for us to directly engage with everyone. This is where the media comes in. Media plays a huge part in bridging the general public with scientific community, as they have a far wider reach than the average scientist, and possess the skills to make a story have a lasting impression. Thus, having the ability to work with the people behind media, be it journalists, podcasters, or in general content creators, is an invaluable skill for scientists. We want the media to be on our side, to keep having an interest and curiosity in what we’re doing, and perhaps most importantly, present what we’re doing in a factual yet interesting manner.

If you haven’t realised yet, I’m trying to persuade would-be science ambassadors to step up and participate in more public engagement and media outreach. A good starting point is participating in workshops like Voice of Young Science: Standing up for Science, organised by Sense about Science. These are free workshops that allow scientists to interact with different panels of experts (i.e. media, policy, science communication), actively discuss any burning questions, thereby dispelling any misconceptions. It provides a rare opportunity for scientists to step outside of our work area, and see things from a completely different perspective. After all, it isn’t every day that you get to talk with one of the people involved in the controversial badger-culling policy! And did you know that there is a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in Westminster?

As someone who has been involved in many public engagement events like Pint of Science and after-school science clubs, one of the (many) interesting aspects of the workshop is the art of how to sell your science to media. Scientists are trained to write up our scientific findings as “hypothesis, objectives, methods, results, discussion, conclusion”, to explain very carefully how we arrive at a specific conclusion, and make sure we don’t make sweeping statements. But in order to grab people’s attention, it’s the opposite. We need to state our conclusion first in a way that fits into a bigger picture, and condense all those technical work into (hopefully) emotion-evoking and relatable science. I thought naïvely that due to my outreach experience, I could explain my science in layman terms quite well. Yeah, well, after chatting with the media panel, it is painfully obvious that I need to be more succinct and find the key words that can hook the audience in. On the flip side, it was fascinating to find out that policymakers highly value input from scientists, but again it is most effective if presented succinctly, for example in bullet points, and you highlight what you want them to do with the information (hint: “more money for research” is not useful. “Change *insert specific policy* to help research” is way better).

I believe that the training provided by workshops like these will allow scientists to talk about their research in a more confident manner, and present their work in an appropriate fashion, a.k.a. hitting that sweet spot of being engaging without being condescending. Personally, I am keeping up to date with Voice of Young Science (and so can you!) through Twitter: @voiceofyoungsci and Facebook, and by signing up to the newsletter. So, go forth, attend a workshop, and start your journey as a science communicator to the layman, be it directly with the public, through a media platform, or by influencing policies.

Joan is a postdoctoral research scientist at The University of Manchester, deep into matrix biology (i.e. collagens) and circadian rhythms (i.e. body clock). She is also a Sci-Art/Sci-comm promoter, ultimate frisbee-r, whisky aficionado, and lover of jam-packed schedules.

Twitter:  @UoMEngage #EngageMatters

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