Science communication – why I think it is essential [Becky]

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

There’s nothing more frustrating to me than sitting in a seminar not knowing what the speaker is going on about. When I started my PhD, I assumed it was that I was being stupid, slow, or I just hadn’t learned enough yet.

Granted, these things may be true (!) but it remains a sad fact that there are some terrible speakers out there in the world of science, given that the field relies on good communication to function well (see my previous post). Some believe that their field of work is entirely obvious to non-scientists and other scientists, and that everyone surely knows what all those acronyms stand for. I think the reality is different.

You can’t just flash up graphs like this in a jargon-packed talk without a decent intro and expect everyone to understand!

As a scientist, I think you need the ability to adjust the difficulty level of what you’re saying. You should be able to tell your family, friends, and even the media occasionally what it is you’re actually doing and why it is important AND interesting.

It is ALWAYS one or the other and usually both, otherwise why would you be researching it in the first place?

As a scientist you also need to get into great technical detail when talking to your colleagues. But to get the most out of other people, I think you need the ability to get technical but also make the science fun and accessible when talking to other scientists. Tell me why it is important. Set the scene. Don’t assume that I know what everything is. Then get technical. That way I might actually be able to come up with some helpful suggestions.

I don’t blame people for not doing it well – I’m certainly not an expert at it. But I think we should try harder to do it better, and have more science communicators that are still out there doing the research. What I think a lot of scientists fail to realise is that science communication is mutually beneficial– I get so much out of it and feel it’s actually improved the quality of my work and the way I present it to other scientists as well as other audiences.

This is why I do science communication (aside from the fact that it’s good fun!). It takes practise to be able to explain complicated science in simple terms to an audience, whether it’s getting over nerves, or just being able to articulate yourself to different age groups. Before I became a STEM Ambassador I probably would have had a MELTDOWN and fumbled with my words when giving a presentation. Now I feel much more comfortable and feel able to show my enthusiasm for my subject.

Above all, effective science communication takes a thorough understanding of the bigger picture and why the research is interesting. This in turn helps my research – it keeps my brain trained on the reason I’m doing it, and why my research is important. I was at an event called Skirting Science last month where I gave a talk about my research – having people come up to me afterwards to tell me my research is fascinating gave me a boost and left me raring to go with my experiments.

Cheltenham Science logoScience communication is also incredibly useful for meeting people – Over the last year I volunteered for a few science festivals such as Cheltenham Science Festival (you must go if you can). There’s a real joy in bouncing ideas around as to how to make science accessible and fun. You even get to meet scientists in your own field, and in an environment that is a lot more relaxed than at scientific conferences.

I also think that we owe it to ourselves as scientists to show the world that we are normal people (well, relatively anyway…). We aren’t just a load of recluses with no social skills, with some conspiracy theory to take over the world or mislead people.

Scientists are not actually normally like this!
Ask a kid to draw a scientist and this is STILL what they’ll come up with! It would be great if that changed (even if I feel this crazy sometimes…)

I thought that one of the most valuable parts of Skirting Science this year was that teenage girls got to interact with women who are actually doing science. There are a number of initiatives trying to promote women in science, including Sciencegrrl, something that was created in response to this video released by the EU’s “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” campaign (which unfortunately was really not appropriate on many levels and prompted a massive uproar – see a great parody of it here).

Even if you don’t like getting up on stage in front of people, there are so many more ways to do it, such as writing (this is also an essential skill for science). One of the reasons Emily and I started this blog is because of our shared love of science and the communication of it, in any way we can. Emily speaks to Speaking About Science about it here, go check it out!

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