By Connor Bamford and Joanna Crispell
We arrived in the Hogwarts-style part of the University of Glasgow to spend the day discussing a rather more contemporary idea – science and the media. We came to the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) “Standing up for Science” media workshop, because it was our belief that we need researchers to stand up for both science and rational thinking, but that we could do with more training to fulfil this task effectively. We are all living in what has been referred to as the ‘post-truth’ world, where the power of evidence-based thought is diminishing, yet the global challenges – that science can tackle – aren’t going away, and may even be getting bigger.
The Big Issues
We are reminded almost daily of the importance of science and evidence-based thinking. There are many issues existing in the world today, which science can help with. One of those areas is infectious disease research. Each year we are faced with one major infectious disease epidemic after another: 2016 saw the unexpected rise in cases of Zika virus; 2013-15 was the Ebola outbreak; and before that came SARS, Swine Flu and Bird flu. This is all before we even consider the the issues of anti-Vaxxers and antibiotic resistance. In each of these historic examples there were countless times that rational thinking was required and effective communication of that thinking.
This is especially true given that we work in an institute, the MRC – University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR), publically-funded by the Medical Research Council. Our hope was that the VoYS workshop would provide us with a greater understanding of science communication to the public, and it certainly did that.
Where We’re At
As early career researchers, we are faced with the constant challenge of communicating our research. Connor is a postdoctoral research scientist working in the CVR in Glasgow, where he is studying our bodies’ natural defence system that protects us from infection from viruses that could harm or kill us. Joanna is finishing her PhD studying the defences in the cells of a horse when it is infected with different equine influenzas from different times in history. We are at the forefront of virus research.
“We want to hear from early career researchers too. You’re often the ones at the coalface.”– Peter Ranscombe
When we are not in the lab, we are both also helping communicate the research of our centre to the public and other scientists. One of the major methods is through digital media, such as writing about our viruses on websites or on our own blog, alongside copious amounts of social media. Recently we have started our own podcast and YouTube channel to explain our science on the international stage in a fun, engaging and entertaining way. However, we are not trained on how to carry this out most effectively, mainly because we are doing this on the side of a busy schedule of working in the lab. This is where the workshop came in and was able to fill in potential gaps in our training, especially in trying to get our research to the general public in a way that can help and affect change.
The VoYS workshop itself was a wonderful opportunity to get a good feel for how science communication works as a whole. We were able to engage with other like-minded researchers who are in the same position, and to be a part of the wider ‘Sense About Science’ scheme. Specifically, the workshop was a locally-held whole-day event with about 50 people in attendance. The day was split equally into three parts, each with a particular point-of-view focus: scientists in the morning; journalists after coffee; and university comms after lunch. The day was a mixture of seminars, Q&A sessions and discussion groups between the attendees, the speakers and the moderators, who each had their own experience to share.
The most interesting aspect, from our point of view, was to hear from three local science/health journalists about the journalist’s perspective in communicating research. This is an area we have no experience in, so it was interesting to gain an insight into their everyday working life – we now know to never call at 5pm! “Don’t be afraid to speak to a journalist. We’re approachable!”, says Lizzy Buchan, “Just don’t approach us at 5pm when we’re on deadline!”
“News must be new!”
We were provided with real practical tips on how to best interact with someone who may be inexperienced in your field (the journalist) and is definitely busy and has a deadline rapidly approaching. It’s important to make our science relevant and explain why it’s interesting. However, there is a big difference between science communication and science journalism; a journalist may have the pressure of “reader’s bias” and need to think about how to approach a scientific topic from this viewpoint. It’s important to remember that a journalist asking the hard questions is a good thing for us, as the scientists.
What it did and didn’t offer
While the workshop was of an exceptionally high standard and consisted of essential training for any modern scientist, especially those working in fields of public importance, we felt that it focused a little bit too much on broadcast media, newspapers, television and radio (although some aspects of blogging and Tweeting were discussed). Of course, while this still is a major means of communicating science to a very wide audience – and will remain so for the foreseeable future – ignoring newer digital methods, including social media, podcasting and video production, is a disservice to the research community. Digital media is often one of the most practical means of communicating research and complicated science that researchers themselves have close to hand. It is a direct contact to the public. Inclusions of these forms of media would have completed the workshop perfectly.
This minor criticism aside, the VoYS workshop provided a critical insight into science communication, which we have brought back into our centre. We would recommend it to every scientist, especially those at an early stage in their career.