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Standing up for science

Philip Sellars Jim Squires

17 Oct 2013

Friday 20 September 2013 saw the latest instalment of the Voice of Young Science's Standing Up for Science media workshops, organised by SCI Collaborative partner Sense About Science. These workshops are aimed at exploring the challenges faced by early career researchers when thinking of engaging with the media. Running four times a year, they attract some 40 participants per event, allowing for active and inclusive discussion of the topics covered.

As SCI members, Philip Sellars, Vishal Gulati and Jim Squires attended the event through priority places provided by Sense about Science.

Sense About Science was set up in 2002 to promote the discussion of scientific issues in the public domain following an evidence-based approach, it gained charitable status in 2003. It boasts some 6000 scientists - from PhD students through to Nobel Prize winners - who contribute to the regular assessment and dissemination of evidence on popular scientific issues.

The trust's Voice of Young Science group was set up to address the lack of younger scientists showing their expertise by standing up in the media to speak about current issues. Friday's event was split into three sections, each looking at the issue of media engagement from different angles. In the first section three researchers gave us their views on the subject, they were: Prof Paddy Regan (Physics, University of Surrey); Prof Robert Dorey (Nanomaterials, Cranfield University); and Dr Gia Aradottir (Insect entomology, Rothamsted Research).

Each of the researchers highlighted that while there can be some negative aspects of dealing with the press - such as comments being edited to give slightly different meanings, time pressures from journalists and criticism from various factions - on the whole, the process can be very exciting and rewarding.

The audience was reminded that you, as the scientist, are not the story (even if you are a well known scientist such as Prof Brian Cox), you are merely there to give an informed comment on whatever the story is, and you don't need to be the world-leading expert on the subject. If you don't know the exact answer to a particular question, you are allowed to say 'I don't know'.

It was noted that you ought to follow whatever routes there are to engage with the media, be it on a news broadcast or perhaps a more light hearted feature such as 'Ask Rhod Gilbert' - the more exposure that you can get, the easier it is to put your message across.

It was also noted that social media like Twitter and YouTube can be a fast and effective way to engage with a large public audience; however, it can be both a blessing and a curse. While these tools are a tremendous way to reach thousands or even millions of people with the minimum of effort, a scientist working on GM crops may suddenly become the 'go-to-scientist' for 'expert information' on any GM topic.

Similarly, a nuclear physicist could find themselves to be the 'leading expert on Fukushima's safety record'. A large reaction on Twitter can lead to days or weeks of interest from the press - for better or worse, and whether they got the point or not!

Some helpful pieces of advice for those wishing to enter the fray:

  • Use the piqued interest to get your own research across - fielding questions in a political kind of way, and don't necessarily be afraid to throw in a few current buzzwords (eg GM, nanotech, etc)
  • Don't get drawn in by ego, she can be a fickle mistress!
  • Use a politician's trick - soundbite, soundbite, soundbite three times, works a charm!
  • Don't ever feel embarrassed about some media training, the best have all had it!
  • The media is typically looking for a good story, and 'straight down the line' science often doesn't sell papers - try to build an angle and watch out for bias laid upon you.
  • There is a lack of perceived interest for things that don't alter the day to day lives of the media consumers - remember the bizarre 'black hole' angle on the Large Hadron Collider? The stories did not focus on the fundamental science that would be done with it.
  • Newspapers often don't trouble themselves to retract stories or publish corrections - if ordered to, it can be buried back on page 19 with a single paragraph.

By far, the over-arching advice was to understand the topic (and the journalist), have your message clear, and 'go for it'! In the second section, a selection of journalists discussed the challenges that they face when addressing scientific issues.

The panel consisted of Richard Van Noorden (Assistant News Editor at Nature), Claire Coleman (freelance science journalist) and Deborah Cohen (BBC Science Radio Producer), providing a wide range of experience in different aspects of the media.

One of the main challenges faced is time - journalists typically juggle a number of stories concurrently and might not have in-depth knowledge of the subject area, often relying on the expertise of their contacts in order to gain knowledge or insight.

Another significant challenge is that the stories must be newsworthy; they have to compete for space with the antics of whichever 'celebrity' has been prolific in the last week, as these are what sell papers. Unfortunately this can also mean that science stories sometimes get slightly sensationalised. Perhaps the most frustrating problem is that any stories go through an editorial team that may not have a background or interest in science, which can lead to technical details being 'edited out' of an article.

These problems aside, what really pleases a journalist is a scientist who can turn up and properly explain a topic in a way that a lay-person can easily understand. This ties in with the theme from the first session that you need to have a clear and concise message about the science.

The third session addressed some more practical aspects of standing up for science, discussing the 'Sense About Science' and 'Ask for Evidence' campaigns. Simon Levey (Research Media Officer for Natural Sciences at Imperial College, London) highlighted the assistance that can be gained from a university press office, whose staff has experience in dealing with different aspects of the media and can determine the best way of disseminating your research - be it via a university press release, or perhaps through social media.

Various members of Sense About Science staff on the panel discussed the support that can be gained from liaising with the trust, such as scientists being put in contact with civic groups to discuss issues that arise in the media. A recent example of which was the hosting of an online discussion between Prof Regan and the group Mumsnet to address concerns arising from the accident at the nuclear plant in Fukushima.

The audience's attention was also brought to Sense About Science's new campaign 'Ask For Evidence', which has been set up to counter the culture of publishing distorted or misleading scientific claims. The idea is that anyone can send a request for the evidence upon which a scientific claim is based, and Sense About Science can help with its analysis and the communication of a response to the public.

The event provided the right balance of information from all sides of an important topic, promoting entertaining and constructive discussions, and giving very useful advice to those of us at the beginning of our careers in science for our quest to disseminate our work and our expertise to the wider community. Perhaps the best piece of advice was: 'If you see a gap... what's stopping you from filling it?'

Sense about Science will be running the next event in this series at the University of Glasgow on Tuesday 26 November 2013. To apply, please send a CV and cover letter explaining your reasons for applying to Victoria Murphy, vmurphy@senseaboutscience.org and state in your application that you are an SCI member. Please note the application deadline is 14 November.

Dr Philip Sellars, Dr Vishal Gulati and Jim Squires

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