Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Communicating Science Effectively

Leave a comment

BSA SciComms Conference 2010

Just got an email from them:

The evaluation and report of the conference are now available online here and you can download speaker presentations and listen to Tim Smit’s keynote speech via the ‘reports’ pages (which I wrote a bit about here).

Now, final post from me; day 2, part 3! Told you I’d get around to it eventually.

Engaging Young People in Research

On public health and medicines (“With us, not about us”)

This one certainly won the longest title competition. We had a couple of ‘special guests’ in this session – two school students, age 10 and 14 if I recall correctly, who, not wishing to be too patronising, were very sweet with their mini-presentations. I remember the younger one talking about the discovery that vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy saying,

James Lind, the doctor who invented scurvy…


Colin Johnson (a former BSA trustee) introduced the session, starting with Louca-Mai from the NCB (national children’s bureau).

In her presentation she covered the importance of assessing how public health and science is communicated and how young people (will do the standard thing and shorten that to YP) are involved.

It wasn’t the best presentation technically so I’ve just got some outlined points from it.

Participation/involvement/engagement – bringing about changes and benefits to research, policy and practice as well as for the people involved.
Ethics – rights, inclusion, empowerment – freedom of expression for kids.
e.g. Wellcome Trust-funded project (PEAR ’05-08, currently ’08-09) aimed to inform, educate, linking with policy-makers.

Jennie Newman of MCRN (Medicines for Children Research Networks) was up next.

One fantastic quote from a young participant in response to the age-old ‘who should our test subjects be?’ type question was:

Test on the elderly and homeless!!

Their organisation has worked with YP of a broad age range, teaching them where drugs come from and how we evaluate if they work;  for example, relating the ‘fair test’ concept that’s taught at school to actual clinical trials.

Finally we had a bit of a brainstorming session on possible changes that could be made in the media to make YP feel more included.

Does the media ignore children?

Someone ventured that they’re often presented with more distanced material; how up-to-date is Newsround nowadays??

The US runs many such ‘Summer Camps’

Someone from Denmark described their CSI-style crime-solving summer camp that involves role-play, exciting scenarios and  imagination – they received great feedback on this (does sound quite fun; I did similar at the university at home, we had a sort of DNA fingerprinting workshop).

In our group was also an artist (previously in genetics!) and someone from the STFC but we spent ages talking about things and didn’t actually get too many points out that were on topic, in terms of media qualities important in engaging YP

In the end we plumped for:

Non-patronising, ‘grown-up’ content with relevance, drama, reality (sometimes difficult to put together, a common problem in the media generally) and giving responsibility.

Someone pointed out that there is a database of engagement-frnedly teachers being put together and STEMnet will also help with advertising etc.

The James Lind Library was recommended as an evidence-based science in health and medicine resource.

Fostering Good Science Communicators

I signed up for this session as I thought it would involve discussion on good and bad ways to communicate science; what to avoid, the best and worst examples – that kind of thing. However, that wasn’t what it was at all!

It was more focussed on training and supporting science communicators (as a separate professional category from scientists/journalists); still an important subject but not really what I was looking for. Can’t win ’em all!

An initial question was:

What is good science communication? Is it measurable?

The first speaker discussed the development of skills; evidence-based, helpful, practical, appropriate techniques.
She also covered some of the Psychology of both expert performance and learning theory (nothing directly relevant on teaching/training)

Apparently it takes approximately 10,000 hours (9-10 years) to become, officially, an ‘expert’. But what differs expert knowledge from basic knowledge? Experience changes perspective.  I wonder, is this a case of knowledge vs. wisdom? One of my favourite examples being

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

Training tends to consist of: observation, practice, theory, feedback and reflection to improve performance.

Some limits are imposed e.g. communication being ancillary rather than main focus. Is there a role for referees and/or mentoring?

The progression (increasing skills and knowledge) is:

Presenter (knowledge of own field, context and audience)
Teacher (knowledge of own field, audience, learning, curriculum and interaction)
Debater (interacting, reconciling views, knowledge of own field, the broad field, ethics,  plus moderating and facilitating discussion).

The next speaker, from the Sanger institute, told us that informed debate had grown from the Human Genome Project; communication was voluntary, not a requirement, and supported. Many people had spoken of encountering opposition when expressing a desire to engage with people about science, but some institutions have and do actively support it.

The final talk/group discussion exercise was on the subject of frameworks, a word that ended up sounding meaningless (you know when you say something too much and it loses  its definition). So, if I recall, the framework is supposed to be a kind of map/guideline for training people to be good at something; kind of like a workflow (another slightly meaningless word!).

Are frameworks important/useful/necessary/superfluous in scicomms?

Issues within ‘frameworks’:

– Language. Skills, competencies and attributes – differences matter? To people using the guidelines, yes!

– Levels. Recognition, progression, inclusion – is it all a good idea, or off-putting and excluding? A rigid path could potentially negatively impact on careers.

A ‘duty to communicate’ is not good – as I’ve said before, if people are good at communicating and/or want to, go ahead – but forcing everyone to do so is ultimately going to be detrimental. Not just for the people being forced to do something they’re not enthusiastic about, but also for their audience.

– Partnerships. Activities can be one-way e.g. talks, which can facilitate other activities, or 2-way; e.g. dialogue.

Bearing in mind that many at the conference are professional comms people rather than scientists, a question was raised as to whether engaged researchers would kill the comms base? The situation is different now; fewer people hide engagement activities from supervisors. So, more scientists themselves are getting into outreach etc., but that doesn’t mean that communication as a career in its own right will disappear. Most scientists can’t commit to it 100% because they have other stuff to do!!

The final feedback was re: general Feelings on Frameworks: they can be useful in measurement but also off-putting; are hierarchies a good idea?  They could foster negative feelings on career progression. Should they be individual rather than team-oriented? Sanger is going to be publishing their Framework.

So end my recollections of the BSA Sci Comms Conference, 2010!


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s