SciComms: Government, Media and Language

BSA SciComms Conference 2010 (Part 1)

Today I attended the first day of the BSA Science Communications conference (#SCC2010 on Twitter).

A lot of interesting discourse (“A dialogue about dialogue” emerged as a common name for this) happened but I want to try to get some of the key things down for anyone who’s interested in Science Communication or wanted to attend the conference but couldn’t make it.

The Future of SciComms

The opening speakers observed that SciComms has come a long way, now even found in such formats as rap and comic strips.

I learned there was a whole task force set up to look at the issue of SciComms: the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS for short), which has produced the Expert reports: Science For All, Science & Media, and Science and Trust.

Plenary session panel

One of the main points in this introduction was that

We don’t know what the government’s doing with science

Stephen Axford (BIS)

It is important to improve public science literacy (though this was debated in later sessions) and now there is a question, what is the long-term value of engaging with the public?

Science for All

This report looked at 3 areas:

  • Why, when and how the public engages with science
  • Supportive networks and mechanisms to increase effective engagement
  • Professional culture recognising, valuing and supporting public engagement with science

This talk made the point that comms can’t only be a government job – it needs to be a collective effort and part of a wider culture, consisting of three main parts; the public, government policy makers and scientists.

Though, obviously, the three are not mutually exclusive!

The importance of communicators was mentioned (always good to do at a communicators’ conference!) – people who move between scientists and the public and can ‘translate’ both ways, since not all scientists want (or are able) to communicate effectively and even if they did, that doesn’t mean the public would listen and/or understand!

Later I discovered that Imperial does a Masters course in communication. I got this information from a communication student at Delft university in Holland (sadly returning there tomorrow…) and his colleagues.

Science & the Media90 York Way - looking upwards on escalator

This was a recurring theme throughout the day, the media in its many forms obviously a main comms/ engagement route. Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre urged everyone to read the report and said there is some good news; it’s a myth that all science reporting is bad.

There are: more specialist reporters than ever; more science stories; a greater appetite for science from editors; respect and deference for specialists.

There is an ongoing debate around whether science stories need to stay with specialist reporters and I’m not convinced on this myself yet. The obvious example is Brian Deer, who managed to expose Andrew Wakefield (finally struck off today! See jdc325, Dr Aust, Guardian and elsewhere for coverage) without any science background at all.

The USA is “haemorrhaging science reporters” and the increasing pressure has resulted in churnalism (coined by Nick Davis, author of the brilliant Flat Earth News) – stories rushed out and lacking fact-checks.

It has been proposed that the successful Behind The Headlines initiative be extended to Before The Headlines, where articles are scrutinised before embargoes are lifted.

The other option is to train non-science reporters in the basic principles of good science reporting (researching, simplifying etc.) – but the problem with this is funding, even though BBC, Reuters and others seem very keen to go for it if it’s available.

Science and Trust

Aileen Allsop, with AstraZeneca, raised the question; what is appropriate trust? “Trust me, I’m a scientist” isn’t sufficient, nor does it inspire confidence.

I’ve made this point before; it’s strange to me that people are willing to trust individuals who present miracle cures or expensive ‘natural remedies’ but shy away from decent, respectable research, preferring to invoke some Big Pharma conspiracy or other typical regurgitated fear.

Finally, an interesting question/comment closed the session. A Freelance Philosopher asked the panel

What can we do knowing we are in the middle of a paradigm shift?

The reply being

Jump on the coalition bandwagon!

Language, Jargon and Social Media

I attended one of several ‘breakout groups’, which apparently aimed to discuss how the aforementioned reports ‘impact’ on us, looking at three main things:

– The use of language

– Whether we should have an agreed and fixed set of definitions

– Questions about social media in public engagement

Firstly we were asked to define DIALOGUE, PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT and IMPACT as terms that have been bandied around a lot. Could we, as a group, agree on what these things meant and who is involved in the concepts? The answer was mostly no and at the end, people nodded to the question “why is a definition necessary?” and sentiment that this was the wrong focus and somewhat missing the point.

The #SCC2010 twitterfall

The social media aspect wasn’t really dealt with at all, though was half the reason I signed up to the session. I talked with my group about it and there seemed to be an overall negative attitude towards it but I will probably discuss the merits/pitfalls of things like Facebook and Twitter (which I adore) another time.

In terms of Jargon (the unnecessary complication of explanations with obscure terms), the reasons people use it were set out as copying colleagues and peers, laziness and habit, filling gaps, and because we  are uncertain ourselves – the result being poor communication, lack of understanding and clarity.

On a tangent, I recently participated in the Junk the Jargon competition hosted by my university – a challenge to present research in 3 minutes clearly and interestingly to an “intelligent lay audience”. I didn’t win, but had some very nice comments, (will write a piece if I can find the plan of my talk!!). Strangely some people managed to completely ignore the title and presented things just about understandable to us but totally impenetrable to anyone else!

I have to say I wasn’t overly impressed with the ‘breakout’ session. It seemed quite poorly-organised and many aspects were dealt with better later in the day. Part of me was very interested (probably the linguistically-inclined part) but the rest felt like we were in some kind of board meeting throwing around random terms and wasting a lot of time.

Off we then went to lunch – I think I’ll leave the other 2 sessions (and following open bar discussion!) for later otherwise it’ll be far too long. Over and out.

Lovely canal view from lunchtime

2 thoughts on “SciComms: Government, Media and Language

  1. Pingback: Science Communication Conference 2010: Day 1 | Contemplation

  2. Pingback: Science Communication Conference 2010: Day 1 | Akshat Rathi

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