Why learn good Science Communication?... by Jonathan Dean

Our scientists never stop striving to improve their understanding of the world around them. Equally they never stop learning new ways to better communicate their work and discoveries to the wider world. One such scientist is Jonathan Dean, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at BGS, who's just back from a 2 day public engagement course run by NERC. Here Jonathan reflects on the importance of good science communication and the skills learnt on the NERC Engaging the Public with your Research training course...

Public engagement – letting non-scientists know what science we’re doing with their taxes – is important. Many people are interested in finding out, for example, when humans evolved from apes, what caused an extreme flooding event and if there is life on Mars, but they are going to be left in the dark unless they trawl through academic journals on their evening commute (unlikely) or unless we make an effort to reach them. We can get our message out to the public in a variety of ways, for example via the media, in blogs on our websites and at talks in schools. Lots of our work could benefit society – we might have discovered mineral deposits that could stimulate economic growth, found a way of reducing the pollution emitted from cars or established how changes in solar activity influence the Earth’s climate. But if policy-makers don’t know what we’ve found, then policy can’t be changed and our findings might go to waste.

NERC - the parent body of BGS
We began our training course with instruction from a BBC News science reporter on how to write a good press release. We found that they are written the opposite way round to how we’d write up our results for a peer-reviewed journal – the snappy summary of the findings, which would be in the conclusion of a paper, should come first, followed by more detail about why it is important and how we carried out the research. Unless their imagination is captured within the first few seconds, journalists will stop reading and move onto the next press release, and our research will never find it onto the Today programme or into The Times (other media outlets do exist).

We then learnt about how to design public engagement activities, such as talks in school or in pubs, before moving onto radio interviews. While listening to the sound of your own voice played-back in front of everyone is never enjoyable, our practice interviews were really useful. We realised the importance of avoiding jargon (for example using the word ‘results’ rather than ‘data’) and in coming across enthusiastic – making yourself smile during the interview helps this! Finally, we had the chance to produce our own media, by making a podcast. I played the role of a radio presenter interviewing two people about fracking.

The course takes place in the NERC office in Swindon 9 times a year and can be attended by anyone who works for NERC or holds a NERC grant, including NERC PhD students and PDRAs. I would thoroughly recommend it as a really useful and enjoyable course that gives you new ideas for engaging with the public and more confidence when dealing with the media.

Find me on Twitter @jrdean_uk